WRITER: Ziad Taha
The billionaire founder of Tesla and SpaceX, Elon Musk is not one to shy away from outlandish goals. His latest involves colonising Mars via manned missions that should start as soon as 2022.
To say this year’s International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, was sensational would be an understatement. The enormous crowd of avid space buffs lapped up every word that the visionary keynote speaker, Elon Musk, pronounced, going wild with each and every detail he elaborated on.
Musk’s grandiose thought experiment offered specifics on not just how human beings could get to Mars but how we can populate it, build a self-sustaining colony of up to a million people and do it within 40 to 100 years from the time the first load of settlers take off.
It all starts with developing the right propulsion technology. According to Musk, today’s rather sub-prime tech renders the cost of sending passengers to Mars at around 10 billion USD per person. Naturally, this makes inter-planetary travel unrealistic. But Musk’s goal is to develop lighter materials, stronger rockets, and reusable technology to help reduce the cost to around 200,000 USD a ticket. “If we could get the price of moving to Mars down to the equivalent of the median cost of a house in the United States, we could get enough people who wanted to go,” he said. “It would be the kind of thing you could save for and afford.”
In order to achieve this goal, Musk outlined a multi-stage launch and transport system, including a reusable booster, like the Falcon 9, which SpaceX has already successfully tested, except on a far larger scale. The booster, and the “interplanetary module” on top of it, would be nearly as long as two Boeing 747 aircraft but with just a fraction of their passenger load – between 100 and 200 people. And the rocket fuel would be methane (CH4), so that it could be manufactured from the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere of Mars and the water (H20) frozen in its soil, thus making sure a return flight is achievable.
Now, to reach the magical number of one million settlers on Mars (needed to form a self-sustaining colony), in spite of the fact there’s only a favourable conjunction point between our two planets once every two years, Musk’s extraordinary solution is to build 1,000 spacecraft, put them all into Earth’s orbit at once, and send these 100,000 passengers off on their six to nine month journey at the exact same time. “The Mars colonial fleet would launch en masse,” Musk said, “like Battlestar Galactica.”
And why is it all this is even necessary? “I really think there are two fundamental paths for humans,” Musk explained. “One path is we stay on Earth forever, and some eventual extinction event wipes us out. The alternative is, become a spacefaring and multi-planetary species.” Whether this is true or not, we salute his ambition and prescience. What a visionary Musk is.