Elon Musk is a man with a vision. Ever since he was a boy, he’s wanted humanity to be a multi-planet species. The problem, as he sees it, is that right now we’ve got no backup option. If a meteor was to collide with the Earth, it could wipe out life as we know it and extinguish the light of human consciousness.
Musk hoped, like many of us, that government agencies like NASA would enable humanity to expand beyond Earth. NASA receives nearly $20 billion a year, but despite all that money, the capability of the agency has actually fallen. Back in the 1960s, NASA was able to send people to the moon using the Saturn Five. Then in the 1980s, it was able to send people into low Earth orbit using the Shuttle. And today, it’s not able to send humans into space at all and has to rely on either Russian rockets or Elon Musk’s Spacex.
Part of the reason for NASA’s lack of innovation has to do with the history of the o-ring. Back in 1986, the Challenger space shuttle tragically exploded, killing everybody on board. The engineers eventually tracked back the reason for the failure to an o-ring that had gotten too cold and cracked, allowing liquid fuel to burst out into the fuselage. Since that moment, there’s been less risk taking in space, and government agencies have failed to innovate.
Musk, however, plans to change all that. He’s unveiled a rocket system which he hopes will reduce the cost of getting to Mars and make it possible for there to be a self-sustaining colony on the planet’s surface. The vehicle transport system that he’s proposed is truly epic. Each Mars landing ship would contain over a hundred people and perhaps as many as 500. As a result, to put a million people on Mars would require between 2,000 and 10,000 trips.
Right now, the cost per person is estimated at around $10 billion, but Musk thinks he can get the price down to a level that people can actually afford - more in the region of $500,000. He plans to do this by fundamentally changing the way we think about chemical rockets. For starters, the rocket he has in mind is truly enormous. It’ll be around ten times the volume of the Saturn Five that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon. Although it doesn’t sound like it, this will actually help with fuel efficiency. On top of that, it’ll be made from carbon fiber, not aluminum, meaning that the power to weight ratio will be dramatically improved. Third, the rocket will be reusable, meaning that just like the Falcon 9, the booster stage will land back at the launch pad, ready to take the next piece of cargo into orbit. And finally, the part of the spaceship that goes to Mars will be refueled in space. This potentially means that the trip to Mars could be as little as six months.
When asked if he wanted to go to Mars, Musk replied “someday” but says he’s needed on Earth first.