By Jesse Goodwin, Staff Writer
On September 27, at this year’s International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk outlined his plan for Mars colonization.
In a talk titled “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species”, he provided de-tails on how his aerospace technology manufacturing company, SpaceX, would establish a colony on the Red Planet by the 2020s.
During his talk, Musk displayed simulated images of a spacecraft known as the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), which he intends for SpaceX to build.
The spacecraft is designed to host fully reusable vehicles that would take passengers to Mars in groups of one-hundred. It is meant to fly to the red planet every twenty-six months, when Mars passes closest to Earth.
If Musk’s plan proves successful, its first crewed mission to Mars could launch in late 2024 and arrive at its destination in 2025.
Naturally, Musk’s two greatest obstacles are time and money. SpaceX is already in competition with other manufacturers to become the first private company to send American astronauts into space.
Among them is Boeing, whose CEO, Dennis Mullenburg, has vowed to colonize Mars first. At an innovation conference held in Chicago the week after Musk’s talk, Mullenberg told his audience that he is “convinced that the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding on a Boeing rocket.”
What’s more, developing the ITS could cost SpaceX an estimated ten billion dollars, but the company is currently financing development costs for only tens of millions of dollars per year.
Musk also experienced a significant setback when a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket exploded at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida in early September.
This incident is the company’s first error after nine successful launches , but investigators have yet to determine what caused the explosion. Some suspect that the rocket’s launch was sabotaged.
Despite the challenges faced by Musk, however, his plan is technologically feasible.
In fact, the Falcon 9 is already equipped with landing technology that would be used to lower the ITS onto the surface of Mars.
It has a reusable first-stage booster, which uses a set of thrusters to reorient itself, and three of its engines are used to lower itself down onto a landing pad when it is at risk of falling. So far, all of its booster landings have been successful.
Shortly before Musk’s talk, SpaceX representatives announced that the company is working on a rocket engine that would make the ITS reusable and refillable on orbit, though it is unclear how the engine will be built.
It will be fueled by a methane and oxygen propellant, which the company determined was readily available on Mars.
According to former SpaceX employee Josh Boehm, the company only needs to make “technological breakthroughs” to improve the reusability of its rockets.
Currently, only the first of the Falcon 9’s two stages, or structures that contain its engines and fuel tanks, is partially reusable and would need to be refurbished after each flight.
Because even reusable rockets and spacecrafts are placed under exceptional stress during flight, the projected lifetimes of both stages of the rocket may differ, and they must be made reusable in order to ensure that the ITS will launch successfully.
The average flight cost of the ITS will cheapen as its vehicles are reused, making it more affordable to both SpaceX and its customers over time, but the company will likely need to find other sources of funding in order to completely cover its cost.
One of those sources might be NASA, whose own plans to send humans to Mars would then converge with Musk’s.
Audacious as it is, Musk’s plan can be put into action and many who are inspired by Musk hope that it will be.
“His extraordinary vision and passion is tugging at the adventuresome spirit of humankind, at least those who hunger to be part of a plan that assures our species becomes multiplanetary,” Leonard David, author of the upcoming book Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet, said in an email interview with Space.com.
He concludes, “Musk has served notice that building the bridge between the third and fourth planets in our solar system is an attainable and realizable goal.”