Maxwell Barna introduces us to Elon Musk, CEo of SpaceX and the guy who wants us to live on Mars.
You’ve been hearing a lot lately about Elon Musk and his half-baked plan to put people on Mars. Can you believe that guy? He thinks it’s possible for SpaceX, the aerospace technology manufacturing company of which he’s the CEO, to bring a manned crew to Mars in the next decade—and from there, tens of thousands of people, then hundreds of thousands and eventually millions.
At a keynote speech he gave at the International Astronautical Congress recently (yes, that’s a thing—don’t be a dick about it), he said that it wasn’t just about space exploration, but about making humans a “multiplanetary species.” In fact, literally within the first minute of his speech, Musk references the inevitability of an “extinction event”—that is, an event that will kill the entire world. Like a comet. Or greenhouse gases. Or the next President, lolol.
He actually said, “I don’t have an immediate doomsday prophecy but… eventually there will be some doomsday event.” So, his alternative is to double down, expand our real estate and colonize that little red planet we know hardly anything about.
Musk Doesn’t Care That You Think He’s Crazy
Does it all sound crazy? Absolutely. Elon Musk started off strong, and very early on in his speech established his potential for being labeled a full-on tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy nerd. But what a lot of people need to remember is that Elon Musk isn’t just some nobody dreamer.
Lest we forget, people also called him crazy just a few short years ago when he said he intended on taking on the Big Three automobile oligopoly with a car that was both completely non-reliant on fossil fuels, and also obscenely expensive. And oh my God, what about Hyperloop? Remember when Elon Musk told us that he was going to invent a fifth mode of transportation that would send human beings barreling through tiny little tubes at twice the speed of an airplane? Fuck. YES. THIS IS THE SAME GUY.
Only, he has since turned the automobile industry on its head (and, in the process, convinced over 400,000 people to put $1,000 down in cold hard cash to pre-order a car that hadn’t even been put to production yet), multiple countries are begging him to use their land to develop Hyperloop and he also just built the world’s largest building (by physical area) and turned it into a lithium-ion battery factory that he’s hoping to power California with, or something.
Musk’s Plan for Mars
During his keynote, Musk wasn’t vague. He said he needs around $10 billion to get the ball rolling in the direction of Mars. He noted that, as things are, it’d cost about $10 billion per person to get a seat on the ship. He also noted that he’d like to get that price down significantly, to about $100,000 per person, through the use of recycled boosters and interstellar fuel tankers.
Drawing inspiration for his plan from the popular American sci-fi show Battle Star Galactica (no, really), Musk said the idea would be to launch a fleet of spaceships all at once in order to squeeze the highest capacity of people and cargo for a trip the Red Planet. Each booster will be able to be re-used 1,000 times, each fuel tanker 100 times and each spaceship 12 times. It’s not the most efficient way to spend billions of dollars we’ve ever seen, but fuck it.
Elon Musk also didn’t shy away from the details during his speech. He offered hypothetical 3D renderings of the ship, talked capacity numbers and talked about how he was going to try his best to get over one million colonists to Mars.
The ship will be massive. The crew cabin would be on top, and the cargo capacity would be large enough to allow up to 450 metric tons of stuff to be transported per trip, and given the weight and size of the ship, would take approximately 80 days to reach the Red Planet. It will be large enough to carry 100 people per trip, and will include enough space for “zero-G games,” along with restaurants, movie theaters and other entertainment.
SpaceX Is Tremendously Successful
You probably wouldn’t know it unless you actually researched Musk’s career, but SpaceX predates Musk’s other massively successful business endeavor, Tesla. And, in fact, since Day One at SpaceX, the goal has always sounded like it was taken right from a sci-fi movie: “SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft. The company was founded in 2002 to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.”
Welp. Okay, Elon.
And if that’s where SpaceX’s story began and ended, no one would give a shit. In actuality, however, SpaceX now employs over 4,000 people and has already been to space.
In fact, since 2012, following SpaceX’s first cargo delivery to the U.S. space station, SpaceX has carried out at least 14 other cargo missions, and was awarded five more last-minute missions in December of last year.
The April 2016 Dragon 9 Launch Made History
Unless you were living under a rock earlier this year, you heard about SpaceX’s Dragon 9 landing back in April. Essentially, during one of NASA’s scheduled cargo deliveries, Elon Musk and his team managed to safely land the craft’s booster rocket safely back down to Earth on a completely autonomous platform, floating out in the middle of the ocean.
Traditionally, the way one of these missions works is like this: a high-powered booster rocket propels a ship into space. Once the ship hits orbit, the boosters are ejected from the rocket and then fall back down to Earth, where they’re never used again. It’s a process that’s super wasteful and very primitive.
Musk’s April 8 success was different in that once the booster rocket delivered the Dragon 9 into orbit, it returned to Earth and landed itself on a completely autonomous drone ship in the middle of the sea. Upon touching down, Musk, ecstatic, was quoted as saying, “It’s another step toward the stars.”
Though they haven’t flown one of their recycled rockets to space yet, it’s scheduled to happen by the end of the year.
The Raptor—A Small Example of Musk’s Genius
If you think Elon Musk is just trying to blow smoke up the world’s ass with this, allow us to give you just a taste of the amount of thought and effort that he put into developing this plan.
Just to give you an idea of just how thorough Musk’s strategizing here is, the Raptor engine is under development right now at Space X. It is the first engine of its kind that will be fueled by liquid methane and oxygen, rather than a traditional kerosene-based rocket fuel like everyone else.
Why? Well, it’s elementary, Watson. Because part of what makes the Mars trip so tricky is that it’s going to take a lot of fuel to make happen. The boosters will have enough fuel to get the massive commuter craft into orbit, but the ship itself will need enough fuel to make it to Mars. Musk covered that, explaining that the booster would return to orbit, get strapped quickly with a fuel pot and then travel back into space, where it would deliver the fuel to the awaiting crew.
Okay, cool. But what about once you get to Mars? How will you get enough fuel to get all the way back home?
That’s where the Raptor rocket engine comes in. Musk says these passenger crafts will be powered by something like 42 Raptor engines. Part of the reason why they’re being engineered to run on liquid methane and liquid oxygen is because those fuels can be made on Mars, using the planet’s carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere, or with some form of water (pending 100% confirmation of its existence on Mars).
Rather than talking about what could be done, Musk is planning for the future now.
What People—and Competitors—Are Saying
Perhaps SpaceX’s biggest competitor in the race to space right now is Boeing, a 100-year-old multinational aeronautic company that specializes in airplanes, rockets and satellites. Right now, the two companies are engaged in a well-known competition to see who can gain more of NASA’s contracts.
But even then, when Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg appeared on Bloomberg to talk about colonizing Mars this week, he gave respect where it was due: “He’s talking about a rocket that’s four times the thrust of the Saturn V. Would it scale up? Who knows, but I wouldn’t bet against Elon—he’s been successful,” he said.
NASA also released a statement supporting the project: “NASA applauds all those who want to take the next giant leap—and advance the journey to Mars,” NASA said in the statement. “We are very please that the global community is working to meet the challenges of a sustainable human presence on Mars. This journey will require the best and brightest minds from government and industry, and the fact that Mars is a major topic of discussion is very encouraging.”
That is, NASA basically told Musk to get down with his bad self.
So, What Does it Mean?
Elon Musk and the massive SpaceX team aren’t just hypothesizing about what they may or may not do in the next 20 years. They’re planning now and putting together the research they’ll need in order to make going to Mars an actual, real life thing.
Musk has said that he wants to send a first manned mission to Mars sometime in the next decade. SpaceX is moving forward and making incredible innovations in private space travel every single day. They’re locking down massive contracts with NASA, accomplishing feats that were thought impossible just five years ago, and even their biggest competitors are encouraging their run at the throne.
No one knows for sure, but if we had to render a guess, we’d say Mr. Musk isn’t as crazy as he sounds.
- Lead image: SpaceX