The Century of Elon Musk

Each century has an individual that redefines the world—a person who transforms the way that we think and act, a person who fundamentally reshapes our understanding of ourselves and our place in the cosmos. This century, that man seems to be Elon Musk.

He’s the man behind Tesla Motors, SolarCity, and the Chief Executive of SpaceX—a company that has ushered us into the era of reusable rockets and which has made no secret of its intent to send people to Mars. Yes, SpaceX plans to create a  permanent Martian settlement. Musk has made it clear that he thinks such a colonization project will ultimately save the human race.

"There is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary in order to safeguard the existence of humanity."

To that end, Musk's plan includes the launch of the unmanned "Red Dragon" spacecraft by 2018, then sending a new and reusable rocket by 2022 (which will be powered by the just recently tested Raptor rocket), and eventually launching humans to Mars after that—hopefully landing by 2025.

However, much of the details still need to be fleshed out. And that's what brings us to today.

Musk’s highly anticipated speech at the International Astronautical Congress held at Guadalajara, Mexico happened this afternoon. Over the past few weeks, he indicated that, finally, he would detail how he would make his lofty ambitions a reality, covering potential colonization systems and discussing the involvement of industry and governments that will dictate the project in the years to come.

Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species

Today, Musk outlined his SpaceX Mars architecture in an attempt to prove that this mission is something that humanity can undertake and complete. He began by noting that going to Mars, becoming a multiplanetary species, is not merely a choice—it is a necessity. "We will stay on Earth forever, and eventually there will be an extinction event...and the alternative is to become a spacefaring and multiplanetary species—That's what we want."

The problem is, we don't have the technological capabilities to get to the Red Planet. "Right now, you cannot go to Mars for infinite money." To that end, the biggest hurdles that Musk outlined is making our technologies and making them economically viable. He emphasized the need to make moving to Mars the same cost as the median price of a house in the United States. According to Musk, that this the only way to make a truly sustainable society on Mars, as it would ensure that people could actually afford to move there.

The median cost of a home is around $200,000. Musk said that reaching such a price through the use of "traditional methods" for space travel would be impossible. Unfortunately, current costs would be closer to $10 billion per person, which is totally not viable.

To that end, there are 4 key things that Musk centered on in order to get humanity to Mars and make the costs work for us. They are

  • full reusability (we need to make rockets that we can use again and again)
  • refilling in orbit (we need stations that orbit between Earth and Mars)
  • propellant production on Mars (we need to be able to harness energy from the Red Planet)
  • a propellant that works (we need better, more efficient methods of travel)

Musk also clearly articulated where we currently are in relation to getting to Mars:

He broke down some of his points (and his rationale) in further detail throughout the talk, and he outlined how the staging would work—both of which you can see below:

Best of all, he went point-by-point through all of the specs for his latest tech. And notably, he made it clear that this project would need to be a public and a private partnership. It cannot be a single company leading the charge alone. Rather, the contributions will need to "snowball over time"—more investors and governments will need to chip in to make the colonization of another world work long term.

You can see a size comparison, ship capacity, and advanced details of his latest technologies below:

Driving Down Cost

So, how does cost operate in relation to this project? How can we make this economically viable?

Ultimately, according to Musk, it comes down to time and a long term investment. As is true of all things in relation to technology, production scales as time passes, and this drives down cost.

You can see his projections from today in the chart below:

A Timeline That Works

But when could we actually arrive there? The Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT) is one of SpaceX’s in-development rockets that is set to be part of CEO Musk’s Mars colonization plan. But he's not the only one working on these technologies.

While NASA and SpaceX are collaborating on the Red Dragon capsule, NASA is building their own rocket (the biggest one ever) and aiming it at Mars. One contender in the race to Mars colonization is United Launch Alliance, whose Atlas V was selected by NASA for its Mars 2020 mission. Non-profit organization Mars One, another contender, declares that they “will establish the first human settlement on Mars.”

With the “when” of it all moving ever-so-closer, it’s only a matter of who will win the race to the Red Planet. Here's Musk's timeline:

Bet on the Best

Prior to his announcement, however, one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets exploded on the launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, effectively grounding the company from spaceflight as it continues to determine what caused the accident.

Despite setbacks, it’s evident that Musk will continue working to achieve his goal. Indeed, noting that he has a 'proven track-record of success' is an understatement of monumental proportions. Company after company, he has proven what he is capable of. In fact, just last night, he tweeted about the successful test of SpaceX’s newest and most powerful rocket to date, the Raptor.

So regardless of how far fetched his ideas may sound, I wouldn't be one to bet against him. Here's to infinity and beyond...

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