Colonies on Mars are no longer restricted to the pages of sci-fi classics and the imagination of ambitious space geeks. These settlements are not only possible, they are moving closer to reality with each passing year, and this week SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk laid out a step-by-step plan to put a million people on the red planet, possibly in as little as 40 years.
Musk’s plan is built around SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System, a fleet of 1,000 passenger spaceships that would make a total of 10,000 trips to Mars over the course of 40 to 100 years, carrying settlers and necessities for establishing a colony.
But is that ambitious goal reachable? How could the plan ever be affordable? And how does Musk’s vision stack up against that of Blue Origin and its founder Jeff Bezos? GeekWire Aerospace and Science editor Alan Boyle calls in from the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico to take a deep dive into these and other questions in this special podcast segment.
Alan gives us his take on the plan’s feasibility, how it might be received, and Musk’s vision of humanity’s future.
Listen to the segment below, and keep reading for an edited transcript.
Todd Bishop: I’m on the phone with Alan Boyle, Geek Wire’s aerospace and science editor, who is in Guadalajara, Mexico, this week, getting a sense for where humanity is headed next. And it sounds like the answer is Mars. Alan?
Boyle: Well, that’s Elon Musk’s answer. That’s what he talked about — SpaceX’s plan to send a million people to Mars to create a sustainable human presence on another planet, over maybe the next century, maybe as little as 40 years. He got a great reception here, he was treated like a rock star. 3,000 people were in the hall. He had pretty much all of them on his side, the way it sounded.
Bishop: Now, he’s in a bit of a space race here with Jeff Bezos, and the Amazon Founders’ Blue Origin space company, which we want to talk about later on. But first, what are the logistics? How will Elon Musk actually get a million people to Mars?
Boyle: Well, it’s a huge plan. It calls for building what Elon calls an Interplanetary Transport System, with the biggest booster ever built, and a spaceship that’s capable of carrying up to 450 tons to Mars. So we’ve not seen anything like this in the past. It’s bigger than the Saturn 5 that sent astronauts to the moon in the 60s, and much bigger than anything that’s operating today, or anything that’s on the drawing board — 100 to 200 people at a time, having a thousand spaceships launched during each opportunity to get something to Mars on a timely basis, and maybe an 80 to 150 day cruise to Mars, and plunking them down on the red planet. Once they get there, it will be up to them to build a city on Mars. Elon says that Space X will provide the transport system, but it’s up to the settlers to decide what sort of city they want to build.
Bishop: One fascinating aspect of your report is the fact that he wants to also give people an option to come back, so one of my questions was, how long does it take to get there? Is that really a realistic option? I assumed once you went to Mars, you were on Mars.
Boyle: Well, you have to send the spaceships back, because that is the key to trying to make this affordable — by any stretch of the imagination — is that the spaceships will be reusable. I don’t think the length of the return trip was discussed, but again, the time that it would take to get to Mars, Elon says would be as little as 80 days, which is a much shorter time frame than is currently available. I think that the fact that this rocket is so powerful plays a part in shortening the time schedule. So a lot of people have talked about one way trips to Mars, but in the system that Elon has put together, you’ve got to send the ship back, anyway. If people want to get on that ship and head back, that’s doable. Elon says that this was the way it worked back in the days of Colonial America, that a lot of people went on the ship to the new colonies and they stayed there, but some of them came back on those ships as they returned to England, or the Netherlands, or wherever they came from. Elon very much has the Colonial history in mind for what he’s planning.
Bishop: So how soon would these trips to Mars by SpaceX start, in the most ambitious timeline?
Boyle: Elon said that if everything goes “super well,” it could be a ten year time frame, but I think that, knowing how the Elon Musk time schedule generally works, it will be longer than that for sure. It’s a very ambitious plan. I don’t think that the 2024 time frame is realistic, maybe 2030. Who knows? We’ll see. The opportunities to go to Mars only come around every 26 months, so there is a factor where you can’t just send things at the drop of a hat. You have to wait for the planets to align, literally.
Bishop: Literally. Yes, exactly, exactly. Now, one of the most fascinating aspects of this is you can look what Elon Musk is doing on Earth through the lens of Earth, but you can also look at it through the lens of Mars. In many ways, what he’s doing with SolarCity, and Tesla, and SpaceX, it’s all with this end goal of Mars in mind.
Boyle: Yes! I think that there are two ways to look at that. One is that Elon said that all the wealth that he’s accumulating — and he has somewhere around 11.7 billion dollars of net worth right now — all that is intended to go toward this great Mars adventure. This is the mission of his life. Everything that he does at Tesla and SolarCity is meant to feed into, of course, making the world a better place, but his share will eventually go toward getting people to Mars. At least, that’s the way he puts it. The other thing is that with Tesla, Elon Musk is really a great salesman that he’s able to talk about what the grand vision is going to be, and if it takes longer, and costs more to get to that vision, the people who have bought into it are willing to go along for the ride. I suspect that’s going to happen in this case, too, that it’s going to cost more and take longer than Elon is saying right now. But if you’re a fan, you’re willing to accept that.
Bishop: Will he, himself, go to Mars?
Boyle: He’s always said that he would like to go to Mars. He would like to, and he would die on Mars, but preferably not on impact. He was asked about this yesterday. He said yes he wants to go into space, but he wants to make sure that SpaceX is in good hands in case something ever happened to him. That he wouldn’t want to do it in while leading SpaceX in a position where people wouldn’t be able to follow through on his vision. I don’t think he would at all be the first one to go, that’s for sure. If you want a good fictional analog, there’s a story by Robert Heinlein called “The Man who Sold the Moon,” that really has a lot of parallels to what Musk wants to do with Mars.
Bishop: I’m sure he’s trying to avoid the fate of, I think it’s Nathaniel York in the Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury, who died shortly after stepping foot on the red planet. To make another literary reference there for you.
Boyle: That’s the trick, yeah.
Bishop: Very good. So Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin also have ambitions to go to Mars, it was just revealed this week at the conference, and it was fascinating the way it was revealed. They have their New Shepard rocket currently, and one of their future rockets is called New Armstrong, which is, of course, named after Neil Armstrong, who took the first walk on the moon, the late Neil Armstrong. So somebody asked, “does that mean you have ambitions to go to the moon, or the Mars?” and a Blue Origin executive said, “yes,” right?
Boyle: Right, right. President Rob Meyerson was at this meeting in Guadalajara, and I don’t think he really intended to try to step on Elon Musk’s announcement, but there is an interesting parallel, just in the ambitions of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk that really, to some extent, they both want to do the same thing. Elon is very focused on Mars, whereas Jeff is just focused on having millions of people living and working in space. In fact, Jeff has said maybe he really wouldn’t want to spend all that much time on Mars, it’s much more pleasant on Earth. But, if you’re going to build a factory for next generation quantum semi-conductors, space might be the place to do it, where you don’t need to worry so much about pollution and industrialization. Now, Jeff is saying Earth should be reserved for people, and if you want to go off-world, that’s where you put the industry.
Bishop: Whereas Elon Musk says, “We need redundancy. What if Earth doesn’t last because of what people are doing there? We could go to Mars.”
Boyle: Right, and Elon has a much brighter vision where he is talking about terraforming Mars. That’s not SpaceX’s job, he underlines that fact, but just the idea of setting up pizza joints, and restaurants, and all sorts of businesses. It sounds like Elon really wants to eat at that pizza joint on Mars. He must be looking forward to that. So Elon has a much brighter vision of what Mars could become, that it would be something a lot more than, say, Antarctica on Earth, which is how it looks today.
Bishop: Do we know any details about what Blue Origin plans to do in terms of Mars, or were they pretty much secretive about that?
Boyle: I wouldn’t characterize it as secretive. I would characterize it more as they really haven’t gotten to that step yet. The motto for Blue Origin is “Gradatim Ferociter,” which means “Step by step, ferociously.” They take it one step at a time, and in fact, the mascot for Blue Origin is the tortoise, moves slowly, not as quick as the hare, but maybe gets to the finish before the hare is able to. So I think that’s the mindset that’s going on at Blue Origin, is that they are just focusing on the next step — which is their orbital rocket, New Glenn — and trying to get their sub-orbital rocket testers out so fully that they can trust people to ride on it — that’s New Shepard. New Armstrong is on the drawing boards, but I don’t think that they’ve gotten anywhere near figuring out how that ‘New Armstrong’ rocket is going to be used to send people to Mars. In that sense, Elon Musk is ahead of the game.
Bishop: Alan, would you go to Mars?
Boyle: Well, I always say, “sure, I’ll go to space. I’ll go to Mars.” But I’m not sure I would go to Mars. I kind of feel like ,I’m 62 years old, I don’t think that it’s going to be a very pleasant flight by the time I’m 90, but maybe my son or my grandson will be able to really consider how fun it will be to go to Mars.
Bishop: That’s great. Well, for now, you’re in Guadalajara, which is apparently the first step on the journey to Mars, so thanks very much for calling in, Alan.