You may not have heard of Elon Musk (of the electric car Tesla fame), SpaceX and his plans to colonise Mars. Instead, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard of Richard Branson, Virgin Galatic and his plans to get people to Mars.
While Branson euphorically said , back in 2012, that he’s “determined to start a population on Mars”, there have been roadblocks since then. Virgin Galatic was left reeling in 2014 after a tragic incident that killed one pilot and left the other severely injured. Their SpaceShipTwo broke up, mid-air during a test flight. The company built a second SpaceShipTwo, which successfully made its first flight on 8 September and they’re using the flight data to make more advancements.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos too has plans for space travel and wants millions of people living in space in the future, but Musk’s plans are the most ambitious and realistic yet. He’s also very serious. So serious he is that he said the manned mission to Mars could start as early as 2022, three years earlier than his previous estimate.
SpaceX gets serious
On 27 September, Musk detailed his plans to send people to colonize Mars with the help of his company SpaceX. SpaceX is the interplanetary transport startup he founded back in 2002. Musk took to the stage at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico as 100,000 people watched online.
Describing how the so called ‘colonisation of Mars’ would happen, he started by detailing the gigantic ship he wants to use to transport the human beings. “12 meters in diameter and 122 meters tall. It’s supposed to carry at least 100 people, have restaurants, a cinema, you name it,” Recode (http://www.recode.net/2016/9/27/13081488/elon-musk-spacex-mars-colony-space-travel-funding-rocket-nasa) reported. There would be a multi-stage launch and transport system – one that, much like the Falcon9, uses a reusable, albeit much larger booster. The booster, plus the interplanetary module on top of it, will be almost as big as two Boeing 747 aircrafts.
Musk is naming the first ship Heart of Gold — a tribute to the spacecraft in Douglas Adams’ science fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Here’s a video from SpaceX that was released before the event. This shows the best case scenario for a rocket ship designed to land on Mars carrying those 100 passengers.
“What I really want to try to achieve here is to make Mars seem possible – like it’s something we can achieve in our lifetimes,” Musk said on stage. He argued his case for the colonisation with a lot of enthusiasm.
According to Musk, there are only two scenarios left for us humans. “One is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event,” he said. “The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization, and a multi-planetary species.”
Funding, you ask?
As we know from past experiences, space travel, especially to Mars, has been out of reach for most of the world. It’s expensive. As they say, “talk is cheap, rockets are expensive”. One day though, many many years from now, Musk eventually wants the cost of flying to Mars to equal the ‘median’ cost of a home in the USA — around USD 200,000.
That’s the same as what Branson’s firm was asking for their commercial space flights. Branson’s flights, however, would only be for two hours.
At the moment though, reaching the price using “traditional methods” for space travel will simply not work. Using a lot of guesswork and already established means and materials, at the moment, the cost would be closer to $10 billion. That means that most of those willing(and daring) to take the flight to Mars will be priced out.
Fitting 100-200 people per flight to Mars will bring down the average cost per user. In fact, every trip to Mars will also reduce the cost-per-ton. “The cost of moving to Mars ultimately could drop below $100,000,” Musk said.
Musk has long relied on being a reliable low-cost alternative to other companies. In fact,SpaceX’s biggest consumer is NASA. SpaceX will be shuttling consumers to the International Space Station (ISS) by either late 2017 or early 2018.
The one little roadblock in Musk’s vision for the future? He’s not launched a single man to space and SpaceX has had multiple launch-pad incidents.
During the presentation, Musk didn’t announce any funding projections. Neither did he announce any operations specifics. He just constantly underscored the efficiency and reusable parts. The only money he has right now, is his own. “I’m only personally accumulating assets in order to fund this,” said Musk.
In fact, he needed to convince NASA, and that didn’t happen. NASA already has its own ambitious plans. However, despite NASA’s refusal, the high cost of the venture means that Musk himself has acknowedged that for his plans to ever come close to being realised,
he must make this a public-private partnership.
The finer details
The plan is to eventually take 200 people per flight, reducing the cost the passengers have to pay. The trip will take between 80-150 days. This is dependent on prevailing technology at that time. The eventual hope is to cut travel time down to 30 days. The spaceship will be able to hold up to 450 tons of cargo depending on the number of refills that can be done with its tanker.
The spaceship will be reusable and will refuel in orbit.
Once the spaceship goes into orbit the spaceship and booster will separate. The booster then heads back to Earth, reaching in 20 minutes. After landing, a propeller tank is loaded on it so it can liftoff again with fuel. It finally rejoins with the spaceship, which is subsequently refueled in orbit.
The spaceship will include fun things – “zero-G games, movies, cabins, games, a restaurant”.
When it reaches the end of its journey, the spaceship will land on the surface of Mars using its rocket engines to lower itself, at slow speeds, to the ground.
The Verge describes the final part of the plan: ” The spaceship’s passengers will use the vehicle, as well as cargo and hardware that’s already been shipped over to Mars, to set up a long-term colony. At the rate of 20 to 50 total Mars trips, it will take anywhere from 40 to 100 years to achieve a fully self-sustaining civilization with one million people on Mars,” says Musk.
However, before you start getting measured for your spacesuit, you might want to take heed of Musk’s ominous warning that those candidates who journey to Mars must be “prepared to die.”