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Mars spaceship
An artist’s conception shows a traveler looking out at Mars through the window of SpaceX’s future passenger spaceship. (Credit: SpaceX)

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – In order to make the figures work for Elon Musk’s plan to put settlers on Mars, SpaceX will have to build boosters and interplanetary spaceships for less than the price of a Boeing 777x jet, on a shorter time frame.

What’s more, Musk is aiming to ramp up to building 1,000 of those spaceships. That’s three times the number of 777x orders to date.

The comparisons between Boeing’s next airplane and SpaceX’s ultimate spaceship suggest Musk is overly optimistic about what it’ll take to get a million settlers to Mars by the end of the century.

So what else is new?

Based on past estimates, SpaceX should have started flying astronauts into orbit two years ago. Another one of Musk’s ventures, Tesla Motors, should have delivered its first Model X electric car in 2013.

Even Musk acknowledged during this week’s presentation to the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara that he tends to lean forward in his expectations.

“Timelines … I’m not the best at this sort of thing,” he said, drawing chuckles from the 3,000 attendees.

 

The timeline he displayed on the big screen called for the first big spaceship to be sent to Mars by 2023, just seven years from now. In comparison, it’s taking Boeing eight years to go from 2012’s first announcements about the 777x to the first anticipated deliveries by 2020.

Musk backed away from 2023 in his remarks, saying only that the first flight could occur in a 10-year time frame “if things go super-well.” As SpaceX found out this month, things don’t always go super-well.

Affordability is another squishy issue: Musk said the price of a ticket could eventually go as low as $100,000, depending on how much luggage the ticket-buyers take with them. But that’s predicated on a cost structure that assumes hardware can be built at the cost of $200 million per spaceship, $230 million per booster and $130 million per tanker.

To some, those figures seem unrealistic, especially when you compare it to the list price for a top-of-the-line 777x ($400 million) or 747 ($379 million). To be fair, Musk chose a cheaper Boeing jet, the $80 million 737, for his own comparison. Nevertheless, it set rocket scientist Jonathan Goff to wondering. “Color me extremely skeptical,” he wrote in a blog post that expands upon a series of tweets:

Despite the skepticism, Goff says Musk’s plan seems more affordable than anyone else’s. He figures the ticket price would be in the range of $5 million, which is less than a tenth of the Russians’ price for a flight to the International Space Station.

“While I think Elon doesn’t have an architecture that really gets down into the ‘cost of a median US house’ range, he is getting into a range that a lot of people could afford,” Goff writes. “Having a Mars architecture this affordable would still be absolutely amazing, even if I think it could be done better.”

How would the passengers fare? Some of the classic worries about long-duration spaceflight – such as the health effects of weightlessness and space radiation exposure – might not be as worrisome if settlers can get to Mars in 80 days rather than the oft-quoted figure of 260 days.

Astronauts on the space station routinely spend four to six months in zero-G, and are able to stave off muscle loss and bone loss through exercise. Would-be Mars settlers will just have to make sure to work a couple of hours of treadmill time and resistance exercise into their daily routine.

Radiation is more of an unknown. The ill effects can be minimized by positioning the spaceship to shield its occupants from the sun’s blast and setting up a special shelter from radiation storms. Some have even suggested using onboard water, supplies and, yes, poop as shielding material.

During his talk, Musk said “there’s going to be some risk of radiation, but it’s not deadly.” That’s mostly true. Settlers are likely to face a heightened cancer risk. Beyond that, the state of the research is fuzzier.

Considering the challenging environment they’d face on Mars, how eager will a million people be to settle on Mars? Musk says plenty of people will be eager to settle a new world, but Bill Nye (the Science Guy) isn’t sure about that.

Nye, who is CEO of the nonprofit Planetary Society, thinks the vibe will ultimately be more akin to that of a research base in Antarctica – scientifically valuable and worth the effort, but not a fun place to live.

And then there are the Martians to consider.

“It’s an exciting time for space. Just as we have a permanent science base in Antarctica, I can imagine having a science base on Mars,” Nye said in emailed comments. “But before we set foot, let’s investigate any ecosystem that may exist there. A discovery of Martian life would change the world.”

Musk and his supporters would argue that Martian microbes shouldn’t stand in the way of turning humanity into a multiplanetary species, due to the doomsday risks we face on our own fragile planet. Such risks range from an asteroid strike to a climate meltdown to an AI apocalypse.

That may well be the ultimate reality check: How much effort should be spent on terraforming Mars vs. protecting Earth and its occupants?

Science-fiction author William Gibson shared an interesting take on that question via Twitter:

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