The prospect of sending people to Mars has long fascinated us. Many problems have been presented, though, putting a damper on those dreams. It is a long and daunting process, which requires first shipping tools and equipment to the surface of Mars. Then equipment will need to be capable of self-assembly in order to create a protective shield for future astronauts.
This is essential, as it will safeguard against the radiation and extreme temperatures that astronauts would otherwise encounter. Furthermore, enough systems will need to be in place that humans will be able to sustain life for a significant amount of time. All of this alone will cost upwards of $150 billion, currently beyond NASA’s budget.
However, the recent launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy may have brought that dream a little closer to reality. The Falcon Heavy launched into space, releasing a Tesla Roadster into the void, where it will remain in orbit. Such an accomplishment has prompted Musk and others to wonder just how close we are to exploring other planets, after all.
Following the launch, Musk again made headlines with the announcement that he was working on a Mars rocket and that it would be completed by 2019. The BFR is reportedly the largest rocket to date, designed to send humans to Mars and beyond.
SpaceX Design for the BFR rocket designed for future missions to Mars.
Despite reports to the contrary, SpaceX will not be sending a crew right away due to the risks and uncertainty. Test flights will obviously need to be conducted first. During an appearance at the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, Texas last week, Musk discussed the company’s plans, saying, “I think we’ll be able to do short flights, sort of up-and-down flights, probably sometime in the first half of next year.”
SpaceX Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell stated that the rocket would be orbital around the year 2020. The current plan includes the following:
- A series of “short hops” will begin in 2019 once the BFR is completed.
- The rocket will be “orbital in 2020 or so.”
- By 2022, two cargo ships will be sent to Mars.
- Deploy two additional cargo ships and two crewed missions to Mars for additional development by 2024.
According to Musk, the first mission will be sent to find the best source of water. The second will be sent to build the propellant plant. “So, we should – particularly with six ships – have plenty of landed mass to construct the propellant depot, which would consist of a large array of solar panels, very large array, and then everything that’s there to mine and refine water and then draw the CO2 out of the atmosphere and then create and store deep cryo CH4 and O2.”
The crew will then continue expanding the colony by building up the base, “staring with one ship, then multiple ships, then start building up the city… then making the city bigger and even bigger.” Musk continued to share SpaceX’s plan for a future Mars colony in further detail, along with an image of how the proposed city would look.
SpaceX’s plans for an eventual Mars colony
NASA has similar plans, though they will be taking a much slower approach. This will include working with Boeing to develop the Space Launch System deep-space rocket. Before heading to Mars, NASA will first be returning to the moon to set up a lunar base or orbiter. A series of stops at the International Space Station will occur in order to learn more about extended human spaceflight. Additionally, the lunar base will be frequented in order to test tools intended for Mars missions.
“If we go straight to Mars, we run the risk of not having anything left over,” said Boeing deep-space exploration architect Matt Duggan. “The case for the moon is that it’s partly about the resources. It may make sense to make an investment there to start and get those resources. I also think that a moon base goes a lot further to enabling commercial participation in a Mars trip.”
According to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the moons holds water that could support life, as well as be used to manufacture rocket fuel. Furthermore, Duggan claims that a focus on a lunar mission to set up a base or orbiter could prompt scientific discoveries and commercial opportunities. Resource mining, for instance, could prove highly valuable.
Humanity’s goal of branching out into the cosmos is fascinating, but it does not come without a great deal of risk. As Musk stated at the South by Southwest Conference, the journey to Mars will be “far more dangerous” than previous missions, and that there is “a good chance [the crew will] die.”
The radiation is lethal on its own, and any number of accidents could be detrimental to both the astronauts and the mission as a whole. In an environment where something as small as a wardrobe malfunction would be deadly, those who decide to take the eventual plunge will be risking their lives daily to take humanity further than we have ever gone before.
However, the risks are decisively worth it, if recent warnings are correct. Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and others have all warned that humanity is on the brink of destruction and our survival as a species may depend on our ability to move beyond the comfort of our home planet.
Musk told attendees at the conference last Sunday that there would likely be another Dark Age, “particularly if there’s a third world war.” If something like that were to happen, we would need to ensure that enough people remained “to bring human civilization back.” This requires the ability to move on, spread out, and find safe places to populate.
While many view the Mars dream as a vision that is worth the wait, SpaceX is geared up to make the plunge as soon as possible. Not everyone agrees that Musk and his company have what it takes to make deadline, especially considering space exploration is costly without the payout that comes with vehicle manufacturing and other commercialization opportunities. Without the benefit of government funding, some feel that SpaceX will take much longer than they anticipate to achieve their goals. Although NASA is taking a more detailed, cautious approach in the journey to Mars, Duggan remains convinced that “the government will get there first over a private industry.”