Visionary SpaceX founder Elon Musk on Tuesday unveiled his long-awaited plan to colonize Mars within the century, saying he wants to ferry a million people to the red planet in a fleet of 1,000 luxury spaceships more than three times the size of the largest-ever rocket.
But, first, he has to find a way to reduce the cost of getting there by roughly “5 million percent,” he told reporters at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. More than 100,000 viewers around the world watched a streaming video of his announcement.
In perhaps the most highly anticipated space exploration announcement in recent years, Musk outlined a detailed path toward reaching his long-stated goal of making humans a multiplanetary species — a reality he believes will be achieved most quickly by first conquering Mars.
“There are really two fundamental paths,” Musk said. “One path is we stay on Earth forever and there will be some eventual extinction event. The other is to become a … multiplanet species, which I hope you will agree is the way to go.”
Ultimately, Musk hopes to sell seats on his 200-foot-tall, sleek interplanetary ships for less than $200,000 each. The rockets will each carry 42 Raptor engines than generate 28 million pounds of thrust and, ultimately, will be able to travel the solar system by hopping between planets and moons.
“I think Earth will be a good place for a long time, but the probable lifespan of human civilization will be much greater if we’re a multiplanetary species,” said Musk, who also runs electric carmaker Tesla Motors. SpaceX headquarters are in Hawthorne and Tesla has an adjacent design studio.
The rocket company launches from Cape Canaveral, where it suffered a major failure when a Falcon 9 rocket carrying communications satellites erupted into flames during a prelaunch test on Sept. 1. The company’s main priority, Musk said Tuesday, is figuring out exactly what went wrong.
SpaceX has a 93 percent success rate launching rockets, Musk said, adding that “it needs to be a lot better” before people can get on board.
Less than 5 percent of the company’s resources are devoted to interplanetary missions, he said.
“Our priority is to find what happened on the last flight,” Musk told reporters after his Tuesday presentation. “It’s incorrect to say it’s anything other than our top priority to understand what went wrong there.”
But he expects commercial launches to resume in November and, by 2024, Musk hopes to begin sending people to Mars. The first hurdle to filling the spaceship, he said, is making it appealing enough for nouveau explorers to want to spend months in transit.
“It’s got to be really fun and exciting and it can’t feel cramped or boring,” Musk said. “There will be movies, lecture halls, cabins, a restaurant. It will be, like, really fun to go. You’re going to have a great time.
“We aspire to launch in late 2024 with arrival in 2025. That’s optimistic. I would describe that as an aspiration and a lot of things need to go right” for it to happen.
Besides building the most powerful rocket ever, Musk said it must also be fully reusable with propellant production plants on Mars and the ability to refuel while in orbit.
The rocket booster responsible for delivering the payload outside Earth’s atmosphere would return to its Cape Canaveral launch pad after a launch. There, it would be loaded with propellant and sent back to space to refuel the ship.
If everything goes smoothly following the first flight there, it would take about “40 to 100 years” to achieve a fully self-sustaining civilization of around 1 million people on Mars, he said.
Musk isn’t sure how the project will be funded but, ideally, it would be a massive private-public partnership that leverages commercial interests with NASA support. The PayPal founder is investing much of his own money into the project, and seeking industry support up to $10 billion.
While NASA partnered with SpaceX on its Commercial Crew project and has hired the company to deliver payloads to the International Space Station, the government agency hasn’t committed to backing the Mars mission.
USC business professor Greg Autry, who specializes in entrepreneurship and has studied SpaceX extensively, called Musk’s presentation “bold and ambitious.”
“Even Elon admits the schedule is probably too aggressive, but he’s a master at setting impossible goals to motivate people and then pushing them to achieve what seemed like highly improbably success,” Autry said. “It’s much less complex and much more sustainable than the visions from NASA, ‘The Martian,’ or other serious models of human exploration to Mars.
“I believe he’d have a long, long line of people willing to pay $1 million to move to Mars.”
In the meantime, SpaceX is working to send an unmanned Dragon capsule to explore Mars by 2018.
Jim Cantrell, a founding member of SpaceX and now CEO of Vector Space Systems in Huntington Beach, called Musk’s vision “very feasible” and builds on 20 years of aerospace-industry Mars research.
“Where’s he going to get the money? I don’t know but I’m sure he’ll figure it out,” Cantrell said, adding that one of the biggest challenges will be human psychology.
“Getting 100 to 200 people locked in a cage for nine months (on the Mars shuttle) … you wonder how that will work out,” Cantrell said.
Musk hopes to eventually reduce the travel time to about a month.
“One of the arguments for leaving Earth is we don’t get along very well here,” Cantell said. “We’re still going to have differences. It reminds me a little of when the Europeans colonized the New World. It’s interesting to see how a spark of an idea becomes a reality.”