Tech tycoon Elon Musk is no stranger to making headlines, or, one could argue, history, but even for Musk, his latest SpaceX announcement seems downright ambitious. Last week, Musk not only laid out plans for a rocket-based transportation system that could put commercial airlines to shame, but he nonchalantly included plans to send a cargo mission to Mars in only five years, followed by a manned mission two years later… and that’s not even all.
“That’s not a typo — although it is aspirational,” Musk said as he unveiled his plans to send a ship to Mars in 2022.
For those keeping score, that would place Musk’s space venture a conservative ten years ahead of NASA’s planned Mars missions, which intends to use the massive Space Launch Platform (SLS) to ferry its crew to the Red Planet, despite delaying its first test now until 2019 “at the earliest.”
In order to get to Mars so quickly, Musk admitted that the SpaceX ship design had to be revamped and made smaller. That shift means a lower total cost, and a smaller thrust requirement to get the ship into orbit. It also means Musk’s company can begin construction of the first SpaceX interplanetary ship in the first half of next year.
The new ship will be lifted into orbit and propelled to Mars using a new rocket platform, dubbed the BFR, or Big Falcon Rocket, though Musk jokingly acknowledged that within the SpaceX offices, the “F” often represents a different word. The BFR will power a ship that will eventually be able to accommodate as many as 100 passengers spread throughout 40 cabins, while also offering common areas and entertainment accommodations to help make the multi-month trip to Mars more tolerable.
Like the Falcon 9 rockets already in use by SpaceX, Musk intends to make the BFR a reusable platform. By reusing large components of the rockets employed in the company’s orbital operations, Musk has already demonstrated that costs can be reduced by a factor of exponents, making his Mars goals attainable through funding sourced from the ISS resupply and satellite launch operations already contracted out to his company.
Scott Hubbard, the former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center and a director in the Bill Nye helmed Planetary Society, says Musk’s plan just might work. By making the BFR “fully reusable,” Hubbard claims, “the cost barrier to human Mars exploration could be significantly reduced.”
Hubbard did however temper his enthusiasm by saying he’d be interested to see how Musk intends to support 100 humans on his interplanetary ship for the required 6-9 month voyage. Musk suggested that the trip could feasibly be made in three months during his presentation, but did not elaborate as to how.
If you thought reaching Mars in the next five years with a rocket Musk hasn’t built yet was lofty enough, as far as corporate expectations go, you’d be in for a surprise. Among the other things Musk intends to take on with his BFR platform: space junk and debris orbiting our planet (which he claims could be “gobbled up” by a modified BFR), and even commercial air travel.
According to the SpaceX and Tesla CEO, the BFR’s relaunchability means it could be used to ferry passengers from one continent to another at extremely high speeds… like from New York City to Shanghai in just 39 minutes.
Despite these ground breaking announcements, the most newsworthy part of Musk’s presentation last week wasn’t necessarily what he’s working on, but the intent behind his efforts. Both NASA and Lockheed Martin have announced plans for Mars missions in the not too distant future, but their efforts revolve around experimentation and scientific discovery. With plans to send cargo ships in advance, and voyages with triple digit passengers, it’s clear that Musk envisions more for Mars than touching down a few astronauts for rock samples.
Musk wants to colonize the Red Planet, or at the least, it would seem, make it a happening vacation spot.
While there have been other Mars colonization projects launched to significant fanfare and disappointing results, Musk has made a habit of following through on his larger-than-life seeming announcements. It seems possible that, if anyone could make a Mars colony feasible, Elon Musk may be just the man to do it.
Image courtesy of SpaceX