General Science

Elon Musk’s Mars Plan is Crazy Yet Totally Sane

posted: 06/22/17
by: Jason Ginsburg
SpaceX founder Elon Musk recently published his proposal for establishing a permanent colony on Mars.

Titled "Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species," the plan combines solid mathematics with starry-eyed optimism. SpaceX's string of recent successes makes the proposal more than just fantasy. What Musk is proposing -- and what he's actually started implementing -- is arguably the most important endeavor in history. Any space fan should consider his projections when thinking of humanity's future in space. Here are the key points:

Travel to Mars Should Be Affordable
Musk begins his proposal with a look at the economics of a Martian colony. Based on estimates of the Apollo program's total cost, he figures it cost about $10 billion in modern-day dollars to send one person to the moon. He believes if he can lower the price, people will volunteer to travel to (and likely stay) on the Red Planet. Musk thinks the magic number is $200,000, about the price of buying a house here on Earth. He wants to see the day when "almost anyone, if they saved up and this was their goal, could buy a ticket and move to Mars -- and given that Mars would have a labor shortage for a long time, jobs would not be in short supply."

Three Ways to Bring Down Costs
How to decrease the price of travel from $10 billion to $200,000? Musk lists three requirements:
  • Reusing spacecraft. This is what SpaceX is testing now -- a rocket that launches its payload into orbit and then returns to Earth intact. No more letting giant, expensive pieces of equipment burn up in the atmosphere, like in those famous Apollo clips. Not having to build a new ship or new boosters from scratch for every trip immediately reduces cost.

  • Refueling in orbit. Musk advocates launching a crewed vehicle "with tanks essentially dry," which allows for more crew and cargo on every trip. Then, in orbit, the ship can fuel up for its long journey to Mars. Think of Apollo rockets, with all that fuel to launch a tiny crew capsule; or the Space Shuttle, with three thrusters plus the solid rocket boosters plus the giant external tank.

  • Producing fuel on Mars. Musk's plan calls for an autonomous power plan operating on Mars to create methane fuel. That way the Mars-bound ships don't have to carry all the return-trip fuel with them. Keeping a ship on Mars along with the fuel also allows colonists to leave Mars at any time.

Lots of People in Little Time
SpaceX is developing a rocket with about three times the thrust of the Saturn V's that took astronauts to the moon. With less fuel needed each time, he hopes to get 100 people (and their luggage) to Mars on every launch. Using methane propellant, he believes the trip to Mars can be reduced from the 200 days it would take using Apollo-type rockets to just 80 days -- and eventually 30 days, making it similar to crossing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail.

Musk thinks a sustainable colony would require a million people. At 100 people per launch, that means 10,000 launches. Don't forget that launch windows for Earth-Mars travel occur only every 26 months, which means Musk's colony would take decades. Increasing SpaceX's passenger capacity to 200 will help, but otherwise additional companies and agencies, and NASA, would have to contribute.

The Travel Experience
How does Musk envision spending the weeks en route to Mars? He mentions zero-gravity games, along with "movies, lecture halls, cabins, and a restaurant. It will be really fun to go. You are going to have a great time!" Worth noting: His Mars ship doesn't spin to create artificial gravity, so you'll need to exercise like ISS astronauts do to avoid losing bone and muscle mass.

The Future
Musk's plan lays out a series of milestones based on Earth-Mars launch windows. He foresees ship testing in 2019, orbital testing in 2020, and a (probably uncrewed) flight to Mars launching in late 2022.

From there, the sky's the limit. Musk says four elements are needed for space exploration: "The rocket booster, the spaceship, the tanker and the propellant plant, and the in situ propellant production." Once those are developed, "you can go anywhere in the solar system by planet hopping or moon hopping. By establishing a propellant depot on the asteroid belt or on one of the moons of Jupiter, you can make flights from Mars to Jupiter."

Musk doesn't end his proposal with any sort of call to action or request for donations or ad with open positions. He simply states his case, presents his plans, and goes back to incrementally changing the very nature of space exploration.

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