SpaceX founder, lead designer, and chief executive Elon Musk has talked a lot about Mars over the past few years, and today marks a culmination of everything he’s hinted at so far. This afternoon, the man behind wild ideas like the Hyperloop and solar roofs made an epic (and long-awaited) announcement revealing more details about his ambitious plans for colonizing the Red Planet. Musk warned months in advance that his plan would be “mind-blowing,” and he lived up to that promise today. Nearly 100,000 viewers around the world tuned in to the live stream of the event, for a never-before-seen look at simulations based on actual CAD designs for a Mars spaceship.
Musk made his announcement today at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico as promised. The announcement was broadcast simultaneously on SpaceX’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. His lecture, “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species,” focused on “making Mars seem possible” by with the establishment of a “self-sustaining city” on Mars. Despite its inhospitable environment, Musk insists Mars is the best candidate for supporting life, as opposed to Venus’ high-pressure atmosphere and Mercury’s close proximity to the sun. He further suggests Mars is the place to be, because a day on Mars is very similar to one on Earth, stretching 24.5 hours. Its atmosphere, he believes, would support plant life (not unlike we saw Matt Damon grow in “The Martian”) which makes human civilization seem just a little more possible.
As has been the case since the earliest murmurings of a SpaceX “city” on Mars, Musk says the effort will require intense participation (and a whole lot of funding) from industry, government and the scientific community here on Earth. So, how much will it cost future humans to move to Mars? Musk illustrated the estimated cost of a trip to Mars by revisiting the first Moon landing in present-day dollars, which breaks down to around $10 billion per person. He suggests targeting a “ticket to Mars” price around $200,000 per person, an affordable price point he says will be a “bit tricky” to reach, given the need to reduce the cost of interplanetary human travel by 50,000 times. Even so, he says he expects the ticket price to eventually drop below $100,000 after an initial base is setup and spacecraft reusability further brings down the cost of transportation.
Musk’s big plan for establishing a human presence on the Red Planet without spending all the money in the world hinges on the development of a ginormous reusable rocket and a huge spaceship capable of carrying human passengers and all the necessary cargo for starting life on a new planet. Given the mixed results of SpaceX’s innovative Falcon 9 rocket booster so far in its short tenure, many are skeptical about the idea of ramping up rocket technology fast enough to meet Musk’s timeline. During his announcement today, Musk reiterated the importance of “full reusability” when it comes to colonizing Mars, in addition to refilling in orbit, generating fuel on Mars to use for rocket propellant, and ensuring that the right propellant is used considering all factors involved.
Musk tweeted yesterday (September 26), “SpaceX propulsion just achieved first firing of the Raptor interplanetary transport engine,” with two fiery photos attached as evidence. SpaceX also uploaded a video of the test to its YouTube channel. The company says this is the first stage of technology capable of launching a trip to Mars, with cargo and people in tow. Today, Musk said the design for the Mars spaceship calls for 42 Raptor engines, which provides the immense power necessary for the trip, as well as some redundancy in the event that an engine or two happens to fail.
The biggest question, still pressing in just about everyone’s mind, actually has less to do with how humans will reach Mars and more to do with when. SpaceX announced plans earlier this year to send an unmanned vessel dubbed Red Dragon to Mars as early as 2018, and Musk has previously said he thought it would be possible to land on Mars by 2025. When it came time to discuss the timeline for a SpaceX trip to Mars during today’s announcement, Musk waxed poetic over the 14-year history of the company, which he founded, before finally saying that he plans for SpaceX to make its first true grab at the Red Planet as early as 2023.
Images via SpaceX