How SpaceX Plans To Colonize Mars
Elon Musk: What I really want to try to achieve here is to make Mars seem possible. Make it seem as though it’s something we can do in our lifetimes.
Loren: Elon Musk finally told the world his vision for colonizing Mars — and it proved to be one hell of a show. His talk in Mexico drew insane crowds. People actually stampeded into the hall where he spoke to get a good seat. They were then treated to a one-hour breakdown of all the vehicles Musk wants to build to take humans to the Red Planet.
So let’s unwrap all of this, and talk about what it means.
It starts off like any science fiction: you need a spaceship. A vehicle to carry up to 100 passengers, maybe more, and 450 tons of cargo to Mars. First, the spaceship will be launched into Earth orbit, thanks to a massive rocket booster. And I mean massive. When completed, this rocket would be bigger and more powerful than NASA’s Saturn V rocket. The thing would be powered by a combination of 42 Raptor engines. That’s the new powerful engine that SpaceX has been working on. The company just did its first full-scale test of the engine the other day too. But unlike the kerosene engines that power the Falcon 9, these engines run on methane. More on why later. So the booster takes the spaceship into orbit. The two vehicles separate and the booster comes back to land on Earth.
It’s one of SpaceX’s signature moves, similar to how the Falcon 9 lands post-launch. But once that booster lands, it quickly gears up for its next launch of a propellant tank. That tank then docks with the spaceship in orbit, filling it up with the “gas” it needs to get to Mars. Musk said it’d take maybe three to five propellant tanks to fully fuel the spaceship’s trip. Then the spaceship is off to Mars.
Once it arrives, the entire thing lands using its engines to lower itself down to the ground. It’s a technique called supersonic retro propulsion, and again it’s just like the Falcon 9 landings. It’s also a way of getting super heavy payloads safely down to Mars, which doesn’t have a very thick atmosphere to help slow falling objects. After letting out its passengers, eventually the spaceship will lift off and come back to Earth. And where will it get the fuel for that return trip? On Mars.
That’s why SpaceX is using methane, because it can be made from the carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere and possible subsurface water. That saves SpaceX from bringing over all of the fuel for the return trip beforehand.
Will Pomerantz: Elon and the team at SpaceX have showed really well that nothing speaks for itself quite like results. So I think the most important thing for Elon and for everyone who backs Elon and the team at SpaceX who do it, is to go out and take some of these technologies that that he showed off today like the giant composite tanks and the raptor engines and just keep developing those and keep testing those.
Loren: So sounds like he’s thought it through, right? Well for all that he did say, Musk left out a few key parts about his human settlement idea. Namely, how these people are going to survive. A good analogy for living on Mars is kind of like living in Antarctica… but worse. Bill Nye: We have a science base in Antarctica all the time, hundreds of people there, all the time.
But you don’t go there to raise a family, you don’t build playgrounds. I love SpaceX, I love what they are doing, it is fantastic. They have changed the way people think about space exploration. But I don’t think you want a colony on Mars, I’m open minded of course, but it… I just, if you’ve ever been to Antarctica there’s nothing to eat. There is nothing to drink. And, uh, you can breathe. On Mars you can’t breathe. You can’t breathe, everybody, that’s serious. Yet Musk said nothing about the types of habitats people would live in on Mars, and very little about how they would eat, drink, and breathe.
And when asked about certain dangers to human health posed by a space voyage — like deep-space radiation or solar flares — he had this to say.
Elon Musk: So, I actually think the radiation thing is often brought up, but I think it is not too big of a deal. There’s some risk of radiation, um, but its not deadly. Loren: There was also little talk of in-space life-support systems or perhaps the biggest issue of all: microgravity. Living in space can lead to severe bone density and muscle loss. And things at Mars may not be much better. The planet has one-third the gravity of Earth, which could also wreak havoc on the body. We don’t know yet. But for SpaceX, these problems aren’t the company’s primary concern.
In fact, Musk said that the first colonists would need to be willing to risk death. Elon Musk: I mean, the goal of SpaceX is really to build the transport system. Its like building the Union-Pacific Railroad. And once that transport system is built then there’s a tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars and create something new or build the foundations of a new planet. Loren: But even some of the engineering claims made by Musk were a little ambitious. For instance, he claimed that the spaceship could eventually make the trip to Mars in just 80 days if accelerated fast enough. That’s an insane estimate given that most trips to Mars take upwards of 6 months. Getting to such a speed would take a lot of energy and then a lot of energy to brake.
He also envisions not just one spaceship going to Mars at one time, but eventually up to 1,000.
Let’s do the math there. The launch window for Mars opens up every 26 months. So you need to launch 1,000 ships before that window opens up. And since each spaceship requires three fuel launches, that’s 3,000 launches in a 26-month time period. That’s more than 15 times the world’s current launch rate. And then there’s the timeline and the cost estimates — both of which seem super optimistic. Musk hopes to complete the first development spaceship in four years and then send the first big spaceship to Mars as early as 2024. That’s ambitious given SpaceX hasn’t ever launched people into space. He also says that factors like reusability and propellant production on Mars means the entire thing can be done for way less than current Mars estimates.
The ultimate result: 1 million people living on mars in the next 40-100 years.
But that timeline is very tentative, especially since SpaceX isn’t putting a lot of resources into the Mars plan just yet, though. Less than 5 percent of the company’s resources are going to the development of this interplanetary transport system. And even with these lower cost estimates, Musk says he can’t do it all alone, hinting at the need for either partnerships with NASA or others in the private industry. So it’s clear: this is just the starting off point. There’s a lot of problems to solve ahead. But Musk says there is only one way to solve them. Elon Musk: Technology doesn’t automatically improve. It only approves if a lot of really strong engineering talent is applied to the problem that it improves. Bill Nye: Oh yeah, just join The Planetary Society, don’t forget that. No so, at the Planetary Society we have 52,000 members, and now after this meeting I hope we have 53,000, of people who love space and want to explore space.
And, uh, they are all running to the front row today. I mean those people, just this um, its an exciting time if we could lower the cost of getting to space, it would be great. Wanna see something else controversial? Watch this …