Elon Musk has made a name for himself in recent years as a man with a vision for the future. Whether it’s electric cars to drive to work, tunnel boring machines to alleviate traffic, solar shingles for your house, or reusable space rockets intended to help bring mankind to the stars, Musk continues to push the envelope of what people tend to believe private companies are capable of.
Although some of his claims have seemed almost silly at times (landing launched rocket stages on drone barges for re-use still sounds almost silly) he has repeatedly followed through on his claims, or at least demonstrated the capacity to make some of the more grandiose ones attainable in the near future. In the years to come, however, Musk will face the largest challenges he may have come across yet, as he sends paying customers on a trip around the moon, a feat accomplished by only one other organization in all of history, but he already has his sights set much further away than lunar orbit.
While some CEOs might relay their intentions to board members behind closed doors, Musk has decided to put his plans for space out into the world – releasing an extensive 16-page explanation of his vision for the space travel of the near future, as well as some of the motivations that keep driving him to look toward the stars.
“I think there are really two fundamental paths. History is going to bifurcate along two directions. One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event,” Musk writes to open his commentary entitled “Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species.”
“I do not have an immediate doomsday prophecy, but eventually, history suggests, there will be some doomsday event. The alternative is to become a space-bearing civilization and a multi-planetary species, which I hope you would agree is the right way to go.”
Musk’s manifesto lays out plans for reusable rockets, such as those his company, SpaceX, has already demonstrated in use, ferrying loads of fuel into orbit, where ships lay in wait to make the trip to Mars.
“Over time, there were would be many spaceships,” Musk says. “You would ultimately have upwards of 1,000 or more spaceships waiting in orbit. Hence, the Mars Colonial fleet would depart en masse.”
The document also discusses the engine Musk believes could be used to create a truly interplanetary fleet of spaceships – the Raptor engine. According to Musk, the raptor is already under development and “is going to be the highest chamber pressure engine of any kind ever built, and probably the highest thrust-to-weight.”
What makes this engine platform so different from previous designs, according to Musk, is the way it handles fuel delivery inside the combustion chamber.
“Compared with when used close to their boiling points in most rockets, in our case, we load the propellants close to their freezing point. That can result in a density improvement of around 10%–12%, which makes an enormous difference in the actual result of the rocket.”
Musk’s plan calls for each of his ships to be equipped with a whopping 42 of these Raptor engines, but Musk points out that the Falcon Heavy, slated for launch next year, is equipped with 27 of their standard engines. “Therefore, we have considerable experience with a large number of engines.”
His plan calls for in-flight refueling similar in methodology to how long-range bombers and fighter jets refuel, using tanker ships to provide the interplanetary vessels with the fuel they need to continue on their journey. According to his strategy, this will allow for trips that carry as much as 450 tons worth of supplies, equipment, and gear to the red planet.
Crazier still, is he believes the price per ton, which he estimates could potentially account for one person and their belongings, could be as low as a $100,000. That’s right, per Musk’s plan, you could take a trip to Mars for less than it costs to buy a Townhouse in a good neighborhood.
If Musk’s predictions for the future are accurate, and to be honest, they have been so far for the most part, these trips could start in as little as ten years, assuming some of the larger hurdles of long-term space travel can be solved by then (like the immense amounts of radiation crew would be exposed to in deep space). In some ways, however, these obstacles are the most important part of such endeavors, as it’s through our efforts to solve problems that we often make the most important discoveries and advances.
Who knows, Musk’s ten year prediction may seem pretty optimistic, but then, so was John F. Kennedy when he said:
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
You can download and read the full 16 page document released by Musk here.
Images courtesy of SpaceX