Did SpaceX Just Pass NASA on the Road to Mars?

Elon Musk’s biggest, boldest plan yet.

This could be you, circa 2025. (SpaceX)
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If even a fraction of what Elon Musk proposed yesterday comes to pass, his speech at the International Aeronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, will be remembered as a historic moment, akin to President Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon” speech in 1962.

Space fans have hardly been able to contain themselves in recent weeks, awaiting The Speech wherein the SpaceX founder and guiding force behind Tesla Motors, SolarCity, Hyperloop, and other futuristic ventures promised to lay out his plans for human settlement of Mars.

Musk did not disappoint.

It’s worth watching his whole talk, but here are the highlights:

In 2018—just two years from now—SpaceX plans to land the heaviest spacecraft ever sent to Mars on the planet’s surface, and to repeat these (uncrewed) landings at every available launch opportunity, or every 26 months. Meanwhile, the company will be developing the largest rocket ever built (Musk doesn’t have a generic name yet, but wants to call the first one “Heart of Gold,” from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), which will be ready for booster tests by 2019 and Earth-orbit trials a year later. Once that’s done, SpaceX’s interplanetary ship—capable of carrying at least 100 people or 450 tons of cargo—could be ready to start taking the first settlers to Mars by 2024, although Musk calls that optimistic. Tickets for the journey will cost an estimated $200,000. Over time he sees a million people living on Mars, with fleets of 1,000 ships making the trip in as little as three months, or even, eventually, 30 days.

Oh, and by the way, the same interplanetary transport system will be able to take us “anywhere in the solar system,” according to Musk.

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The Interplanetary Transport could land just as well on Saturn's moon Enceladus as on Mars. (SpaceX)

Over the years I’ve heard many proposals for Mars missions—though none as ambitious—by people inside and outside NASA, from the 90-Day Study to the Design Reference Architecture 5.0 to Mars One. I’ve stopped believing any of them. Yesterday, Musk at least had me paying attention again. He understands that none of this will happen unless he—or somebody—can cut today’s launch costs by orders of magnitude. He also admits that he can’t fund the entire venture alone. World space agencies could contribute, at the very least, by buying SpaceX’s transportation services, and more likely, with outlays of public funding.

But Musk sees no technical showstoppers to achieving his goal, which may be the most significant point he made yesterday. SpaceX engineers just this week test-fired for the first time the new methane-fueled Raptor engine that will be the workhorse of the new rocket, and Musk appears undaunted by the need to crank out tens of thousands of these engines for his interplanetary fleets.

Old-school aerospace engineers might be forgiven for thinking this all sounds like a little much.

Musk can only point to his track record—SpaceX has designed and built its own Earth-orbit transportation system from scratch in less than 15 years—and his intent to keep moving forward. “There’s a good chance we won’t succeed,” he told the audience in Guadalajara, “but we’re going to do our best.”

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In 2002, said Musk (third from right), SpaceX was just "a carpet and a mariachi band." Now the company aims to build a highway to Mars. (SpaceX)

NASA, in fairness, also is working on many of the technologies required for a Mars transportation system, and has been for years. Take, for example, the lightweight carbon-fiber fuel tank, which Musk says has been a “fairly significant technical challenge” for SpaceX. Or supersonic retro-propulsion—using the rocket’s own engines, rather than parachutes, to slow the spaceship upon arrival at Mars—which, according to Eric Berger at Ars Technica, SpaceX has already begun testing on Falcon 9 flights.

The engineers at NASA understand these problems, too, and know, in principle, how to solve them. They just don’t have the money, political support, or organizational culture to turn these research efforts into a flight program.

Musk does, by virtue of his single-minded dedication to the goal of putting people on Mars (rather than making a profit or playing pork-barrel politics) and the advantage that SpaceX is a 21st-century company, not a 20th-century bureaucracy with all its attendant inefficiencies and entrenched ways of doing business.

Case in point: NASA has agreed to provide technical help on SpaceX’s 2018 “Red Dragon” mission to put an uncrewed lander on Mars. NASA will provide tracking, navigation, and other kinds of engineering and scientific advice.  In turn, the agency will get critical data on the entry, descent, and landing, in particular the never-attempted supersonic retro-propulsion at Mars. In a recent talk, Phil McAlister of NASA headquarters called the agreement a win-win for the agency, because it will get essential Mars landing data “about a decade sooner and at a small fraction of the cost” that it would have taken the NASA way.

Musk can move nimbly and quickly, stopping only when he hits a technical roadblock. He has claimed from the beginning that his goal is to create an interplanetary transportation system. Within two years, he said yesterday, most of the engineering team at SpaceX will be working on it.

Skeptics point out that this audacious plan is being unveiled at a time when even SpaceX’s relatively modest Falcon 9 rocket is grounded after a launch pad accident. But Musk understands the challenges better than anyone, and admits that the timeline will probably slip. If he’s a visionary—no aerospace figure has dreamed this big since Wernher von Braun—he’s also a cold realist. Asked yesterday if he wants to be the first person on Mars, he answered, “I don’t think so…The probability of death is quite high on the first mission, and I’d like to see my kids grow up.”

Who at NASA would say that?

(Correction: An earlier draft of this story wrongly said that within two years, most SpaceX employees would be working on the interplanetary transport system. Musk said that most of the engineering team—not the entire staff—would be working on it.)

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