SpaceX founder Elon Musk plans to get humans to Mars in six years

SpaceX founder tells meeting of astronautical experts that his only purpose is to ‘make life interplanetary’, revealing plans for reusable ship to Mars

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has outlined his highly ambitious vision for manned missions to Mars, which he said could begin as soon as 2022 – three years sooner than his previous estimates.

However, the question of how such extravagantly expensive missions would be funded remains largely in the dark.

“What I really want to try to achieve here is to make Mars seem possible – like it’s something we can achieve in our lifetimes,” Musk told an audience in his keynote speech at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Tuesday.

He said there were “two fundamental paths” facing humanity today. “One is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event,” he said. “The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization, and a multi-planetary species.”

A shot of a video about the Interplanetary Transport System, which aims to reach Mars with the first human crew in history.
A shot of a video about the Interplanetary Transport System, which aims to reach Mars with a human crew for the first time in history. Photograph: Hector-Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

In order to achieve this goal, Musk outlined a multi-stage launch and transport system, including a reusable booster – like the Falcon 9, which SpaceX has already successfully tested – only much larger. The booster, and the “interplanetary module” on top of it, would be nearly as long as two Boeing 747 aircraft. It could initially carry up to 100 passengers, he said.

The first ship to go to Mars, Musk said, would be named Heart of Gold as a tribute to the ship powered by an “infinite improbability drive” from Douglas Adams’ science fiction novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Similar modules, also launched using reusable boosters, would remain in Earth’s orbit to refuel the interplanetary craft to be able to use multiple trips, including to other parts of the solar system such as Enceladus, a moon of Saturn on which Nasa’s Cassini mission recently found evidence of a polar subsurface water ocean that could harbor life.

Musk also outlined a system by which fuel could be synthesized on Mars from water and carbon dioxide in order to fuel return journeys to Earth.

He estimated the current cost of sending someone to Mars at “around $10bn per person”, though it was not clear if he meant using existing rocket systems or on the initial flight of his proposed system. He said that there would be price improvements over time because of the reusability of the spacecraft, in-orbit refuelling and on-Mars propellant production that would reduce that cost by “orders of magnitude”.

But he made little attempt to solve the thorny problem of the initial cost of constructing the system. Suggesting possible revenue streams, Musk proposed two sources of cash – sending cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station and launching satellites – both already part of SpaceX’s business model.

Elon Musk said humanity faces two paths – staying on Earth or becoming a ‘spacefaring civilization’.
Elon Musk said humanity faces two paths – staying on Earth or becoming a ‘spacefaring civilization’. Photograph: Hector-Guerrero/AFP/Getty Images

He also listed three other sources of revenue that simply read “kickstarter”, “profit” and – intriguingly – “steal underpants”.

Asked at the talk about funding, however, Musk said: “The reason I am personally accruing assets is to fund this. I really have no other purpose than to make life interplanetary.”

Bill Nye, chief executive officer of the Planetary Society and host of the popular TV show Bill Nye the Science Guy, was in the audience and described the energy of the crowd as “extraordinary”.

“Watching the crowd go absolutely wild today tells me that the best is yet ahead for space exploration,” he told the Guardian, adding that Musk had presented “a very aggressive schedule that seemed feasible to the crowd”.

“No matter what we send to Mars, I very much hope we conduct a thorough, careful search for life before we consider landing people and cargo. I believe the discovery of life or evidence of life would change the way we think about the cosmos and our place within it,” Nye added.

Nasa said in a statement that it welcomed Musk’s plans. “NASA applauds all those who want to take the next giant leap – and advance the journey to Mars. We are very pleased that the global community is working to meet the challenges of a sustainable human presence on Mars. This journey will require the best and the brightest minds from government and industry, and the fact that Mars is a major topic of discussion is very encouraging.”

Nasa says it has made “extraordinary progress” developing a plan for sustainable Mars exploration, building partnerships in both the public and private sectors.

• An earlier version of this article expressed intrigue at Musk’s mention of “steal underpants”. Musk was, of course, quoting the gnomes who steal Tweek’s underpants from the penultimate episode of South Park season two, episode 17. Their plan, in full, was:

Step 1: Collect underpants
Step 2: ?
Step 3: Profit

Contributor

Nicky Woolf in San Francisco

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Elon Musk planning SpaceX mission to Mars by 2018
Tesla boss’s SpaceX plans to send an unmanned spaceship, the boldest goal yet in a private space travel industry that counts Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson

Danny Yadron in San Francisco

27, Apr, 2016 @6:48 PM

Article image
Elon Musk: SpaceX can colonise Mars and build moon base
Musk says project codenamed BFR would also allow commercial travel to anywhere on Earth in under an hour

Michael Slezak in Sydney and Olivia Solon in San Francisco

29, Sep, 2017 @8:30 AM

Article image
Elon Musk has ambitious plans for Mars. Are they as crazy as they sound?
The SpaceX founder has become the face of entrepreneurial space exploration – and ambition. What does the established space science community think of him?

Olivia Solon in San Francisco

27, Sep, 2016 @11:00 AM

Article image
SpaceX successfully launches Falcon 9 rocket months after explosion
Engineers burst into cheers when rocket landed on barge in Pacific Ocean, as the launch was SpaceX’s first since September, when rocket exploded on launchpad

Alan Yuhas in San Francisco

15, Jan, 2017 @2:31 AM

Article image
Life on Mars: Elon Musk reveals details of his colonisation vision
SpaceX entrepreneur outlines his plan to make humans a multi-planetary species, including an ‘intentionally fuzzy’ 10-year timeframe

Hannah Devlin Science correspondent

16, Jun, 2017 @11:42 AM

Article image
Elon Musk: we must colonise Mars to preserve our species in a third world war
Founder of SpaceX, which is working on getting humans to the planet, speaks at SXSW amid rising nuclear tension

Olivia Solon

11, Mar, 2018 @8:50 PM

Article image
SpaceX’s towering Starship aims to get humans to Mars
The largest and most powerful rocket ship ever is fully recyclable and may be the first vehicle to land humans on Mars

Richard Luscombe

20, Dec, 2021 @8:00 AM

Article image
SpaceX oddity: how Elon Musk sent a car towards Mars
A Starman sitting in a tin can is currently navigating the heavens, soundtracked by David Bowie. How did it – and we – get there?

Bonnie Malkin

07, Feb, 2018 @9:29 AM

Article image
Elon Musk plans satellite network
Next venture by founder of electric car firm Tesla aims to bring internet coverage to the billions who do not have it

Chris Johnston

08, Nov, 2014 @5:34 PM

Article image
SpaceX becomes first to re-fly used rocket
Partially recycled Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched and landed, a step toward vastly less expensive spaceflight

Alan Yuhas in San Francisco

30, Mar, 2017 @11:24 PM