It’s either the moment we will all remember as the flashpoint for the next phase of humanity or the beginning of the end for one of our most ambitious and eccentric minds. Elon Musk has outlined a mind-bogglingly ambitious plan to make sure Earth isn’t the only planet that we humans can call home.
In a grand presentation yesterday afternoon (which was unfortunately marred by the extreme lateness of Musk himself and then by a bizarrely uncurated Q&A session), the Space X Interplanetary Transport System was revealed. It consists of an enormous (like, bigger than the Saturn V enormous), reusable booster rocket that would launch a spaceship into a parking orbit, return to the launchpad where it would pick up a fuel tanker, then launch again to rendezvous with the parked spaceship. It seems much more complicated than developing an all-in-one vehicle, but Musk’s reasoning behind a multiple launch approach is simple. He doesn’t want to wait. Creating a new launch system that contained all three parts could take fifty years or more. But as Musk looks around, he doesn’t see our planet (or our treatment of it) getting any better – if we’re to survive a “doomsday event” as he put it, the sooner the better.
The Space X plan could be ready to launch in 10-15 years. They’ve already started developing the technology. In fact, they showed a mind-blowingly huge carbon fiber fuel tank that they’ve already fabricated for the tanker vehicle. Once that tanker fuels up the spaceship, it will head out to Mars, with solar arrays deployed (you didn’t think all that solar tech that Musk has invested in was just to make roof tiles, was it?) and a crew of up to 100 colonists.
That’s right, not just astronauts, but colonists. Musk wants us to establish an outpost, a city on Mars (and, if the Space X teaser video is an indicator, do some light terraforming). For this he’s seeking international funding and, in typical Musk fashion, an entreaty for the great brains of the world to figure out how to keep everyone alive once they get there (maybe potatoes?). And he’s not stopping at Mars! He’s got his eyes on Europa as well (possibly in a dig at NASA’s Space Launch System, which has multiple planned missions to Europa).
It’s audacious. It’s bold. It’s the kind of thing that seems completely in the realm of science fiction. But if Musk really can reduce the cost of launching a crew to Mars (he’s shooting for around 200k per astronaut, as opposed to the 10 billion it would cost using current technology), and find the funding to keep things rolling, we could see missions to Mars in our lifetimes. Musk wants ships in transit by 2023!
I grew up in a time when Space Shuttles launched regularly from Cape Canaveral, the double sonic boom of their return to Earth a familiar and welcome sound. But even then, as much as the Shuttle Program inspired a generation to think about the stars, we were only ever puttering around in our galactic backyard. I’ll admit, the first time I saw the Space X teaser, I teared up a little. Not just because the plan is exciting; but because this isn’t someone’s theoretical rendering. It’s the outline of a plan by a man with the drive and ambition to actually make it work. And that thrills me. When I talk to my kids about space, they shrug and see it as unattainable. It’s this kind of mission that can reignite that spark to seek the stars. That can inspire the next generation to reach out and touch the impossible.
Let’s get our butts to Mars.