Elon Musk Doubles Down on Mars Dreams and Details What’s Next for SpaceX’s Starship

Elon Musk has long been open about his dreams of using SpaceX to spread humanity’s presence further into the solar system. And last weekend, he gave an updated outline of his vision for how the company’s rockets could enable the colonization of Mars.

The serial entrepreneur has been clear for a number of years that the main motivation for founding SpaceX was to make humans a multiplanetary species. For a long time, that seemed like the kind of aspirational goal one might set to inspire and motivate engineers rather than one with a realistic chance of coming to fruition.

But following the successful launch of the company’s mammoth Starship vehicle last month, the idea is beginning to look less far-fetched. And in a speech at the company’s facilities in South Texas, Musk explained how he envisions using Starship to deliver millions of tons of cargo to Mars over the next couple of decades to create a self-sustaining civilization.

“Starship is the first design of a rocket that is actually capable of making life multiplanetary,” Musk said. “No rocket before this has had the potential to extend life to another planet.”

In a slightly rambling opening to the speech, Musk explained that making humans multiplanetary could be an essential insurance policy in case anything catastrophic happens to Earth. The red planet is the most obvious choice, he said, as it’s neither too close nor too far from Earth and has many of the raw ingredients required to support a functioning settlement.

But he estimates it will require us to deliver several million tons of cargo to the surface to get that civilization up and running. Starship is central to those plans, and Musk outlined the company’s roadmap for the massive rocket over the coming years.

Key to the vision is making the vehicle entirely reusable. That means the first hurdle is proving SpaceX can land and reuse both the Super Heavy first stage rocket and the Starship spacecraft itself. The second of those challenges will be tougher, as the vehicle must survive reentry to the atmosphere—in the most recent test, it broke up on its way back to Earth.

Musk says they plan to demonstrate the ability to land and reuse the Super Heavy booster this year, which he thinks has an 80 to 90 percent chance of success. Assuming they can get Starship to survive the extreme heat of reentry, they are also going to attempt landing the vehicle on a mock launch pad out at sea in 2024, with the aim of being able to land and reuse it by next year.

Proving the rocket works and is reusable is just the very first step in Musk’s Mars ambitions though. To achieve his goal of delivering a million people to the red planet in the next 20 years, SpaceX will have to massively ramp up its production and launch capabilities.

The company is currently building a second launch tower at its base in South Texas and is also planning to build two more at Cape Canaveral in Florida. Musk said the Texas sites would be mostly used for test launches and development work, with the Florida ones being the main hub for launches once Starship begins commercial operations.

SpaceX plans to build six Starships this year, according to Musk, but it is also building what he called a “giant factory” that will enable it to massively ramp up production of the spacecraft. The long-term goal is to produce multiple Starships a day. That’s crucial, according to Musk, because Starships initially won’t return from Mars and will instead be used as raw materials to construct structures on the surface.

The company also plans to continue development of Starship, boosting its carrying capacity from around 100 tons today to 200 tons in the future and enabling it to complete multiple launches in a day. SpaceX also hopes to demonstrate ship-to-ship refueling in orbit next year. It will be necessary to replenish the fuel used up by Starship on launch so it has a full tank as it sets off for Mars.

Those missions will depart when the orbits of Earth and Mars bring them close together, an alignment that only happens every 26 months. As such, Musk envisions entire armadas of Starships setting off together whenever these windows arrive.

SpaceX has done some early work on what needs to happen once Starships arrive at the red planet. They’ve identified promising landing sites and the infrastructure that will need setting up, including power generation, ice-mining facilities, propellant factories, and communication networks. But Musk admits they’ve yet to start development of any of these.

One glaring omission in the talk was any detail on who’s going to be paying for all of this. While the goal of making humankind multiplanetary is a noble one, it’s far from clear how the endeavor would make money for those who put up the funds to make it possible.

Musk estimates that the cost of each launch could eventually fall to just $2 to $3 million. And he noted that profits from the company’s Starlink satellites and Falcon 9 launch vehicle are currently paying for Starship’s development. But those revenue streams are unlikely to cover the thousands of launches a year required to make his Mars dreams a reality.

Still, the very fact that the questions these days are more about economics than technical feasibility is testament to the rapid progress SpaceX has made. The dream of becoming a multiplanetary species may not be science fiction for much longer.

Image Credit: SpaceX

* This article was originally published at Singularity Hub

Post a Comment