Elon Musk is known for many things. Thinking small isn't one of them. From electric cars to high-speed trains to the private space industry, Musk has earned the reputation of a pioneer. And today he talked about his plan for transporting people to other planets as part of the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.
In a SpaceX presentation titled "Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species," Musk set his sights on Mars. Again. He said his goal was to "make Mars seem possible" and to create a reality where we could visit Mars within our lifetimes.
Musk said we have two primary pathways we could take. In one, we stay on Earth and, eventually, are wiped out by some sort of extinction event. The other is that we become an interplanetary species and travel to other worlds, thus continuing the human species while also exploring our solar system and beyond.
The red planet isn't exactly the location you'd want for a summer home. With today's technology, it would take several months just to fly there. The planet has a thin atmosphere that we can't breathe (and so thin that parachutes aren't an effective means to safely slow a spacecraft's descent). The atmosphere and lack of a strong magnetic field mean there's little protection from harmful radiation on the surface. While there's water on Mars, it's mostly in the form of ice. And the presence of perchlorates in the soil pose a danger to humans. In simple terms, Mars is hostile territory.
But it's still one of our better options when it comes to establishing an off-world colony. The planet's gravity is about one-third that of Earth's, meaning it's not quite as extreme as what you'd experience on the moon. And although it would take months for a spacecraft to travel between Earth and Mars under ideal conditions, it's still a closer target than any other candidates (except for our moon). Musk said that Mars is the best chance for us to create a self-sustaining colony outside of Earth.
Musk's presentation aimed to identify challenges and propose solutions, or at least areas of research we could focus on in an effort to establish a Martian colony. And his proposal is that governments, private industry and the scientific community collaborate to make it happen.
A big challenge is cost. According to Musk, using current technology it would cost about 10 billion dollars per person to go to Mars. His goal is to create a way to reduce the cost of travel to Mars to that of the median cost of a house in the U.S., which he said was about $200,000. This would create the potential for people to save up for a trip to Mars. And, he pointed out, since Mars would have a labor shortage for quite some time, employees would be in high demand.
Musk identified areas of improvement we would need to make Mars colonization a reality as far as spacecraft are concerned: full reusability of spacecraft, refilling spacecraft in orbit rather than on Earth's surface and manufacturing propellant on the surface of Mars to reduce the need to bring extra fuel on the trip over.
He showed off designs for a spacecraft made of carbon fiber that would use a propellant generated from carbon dioxide and water. He also proposed fuel depots located throughout our solar system to refuel spacecraft on missions.
Musk's vision is to have normal folks going to Mars, not just astronauts. To that end, he thinks the spacecraft will have amenities in it to appeal to all sorts of people, including microgravity games, restaurants and entertainment centers. These are elements you'd never find in a NASA spacecraft — including them would take up valuable space and add weight.
Musk's approach was primarily on the vehicles that would take people to (and possibly from) Mars, not the tech we'd need once on Mars to survive. That's obviously another piece to the puzzle we'd need to figure out before sending people off to Mars. But creating a spacecraft that can make the trip quickly, for a relatively small cost and as efficiently as possible would be a huge benefit.