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?

Entrepreneur Elon Musk has set himself an ambitious timeline for the colonization of Mars. The South Africa-born magnate estimates that his private space company, SpaceX, will launch its first manned mission in 2024 – one decade sooner than Nasa’s ambitions.

Musk will grace the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Tuesday, unveiling his plans to send humans to Mars in a keynote talk titled Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species. He will outline what SpaceX deems to be a “good approach” for establishing a city on the red planet.

“It’s going to sound pretty crazy,” Musk said when he announced his keynote in April. “So it should at least be entertaining.”

Elon Musk reveals how he wants to colonise Mars

Despite Musk’s optimism, it’s hard to forget that less than a month ago, SpaceX’s flagship spacecraft exploded before launch – the latest in a series of mishaps for the company. The massive fireball that erupted on 1 September destroyed both the rocket and the Facebook satellite it was carrying as cargo. Elon Musk described the disaster as the company’s “most difficult and complex failure” so far.

The incident begs the question: is Musk being overly ambitious?

Musk’s spiraling ambitions within the space sector are lauded by Silicon Valley, with commentators frequently comparing him to eponymous Iron Man superhero Tony Stark. His nimble, fail-fast approach to building rockets contrasts with the sluggish bureaucracy of government-funded programs, something Musk celebrates, famously telling an interviewer at Fast Company in 2005: “There’s a silly notion that failure’s not an option at Nasa. Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”

However, in the wake of the latest explosion, some are questioning whether SpaceX will be able to reliably deliver cargo supplies to the International Space Station, let alone take people to Mars.

Former Nasa administrator Scott Pace, now director of the Space Policy Institute in Washington, thinks the setback could cost SpaceX business. “No doubt SpaceX will fix the problems, but if you’re a customer time is money. This will get customers looking at alternatives. It may give competitors an opening and slow down SpaceX,” he told the New York Times.

John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute, is less concerned. “It’s a setback but not a major one. It’s all part of the normal process of a developing space launch.”

Space industry analyst Greg Autry agreed. “It looks like it’s not a major setback for anyone other than the satellite’s owner,” he said.

Peter Diamandis, founder of the XPrize and asteroid-mining company Planetary Resources, knows Elon Musk and SpaceX well. He played down the explosion, calling Falcon 9 “one of the most extraordinary launch vehicles ever designed and built”.

“The thing that most people don’t realize is that vehicle is designed and integrated completely vertically inside the company. They understand and own every line of software, every sensor, and they will figure this out and get over this,” he said.

SpaceX expects to launch Falcon 9 again as soon as November.

SpaceX test ends in explosion days before planned launch

Logsdon, Diamandis and Autry all agree that Musk’s timeline for a 2024 launch for the first manned mission to Mars is optimistic.

“History has shown he’s not typically been able to move the world along as fast as he’d like to, but he does move the world along,” Autry said.

“Even if he’s off by 50%, it’s still 2028 and before any government is conceiving of doing this,” Diamandis added.

SpaceX’s mission sets apart from traditional players within the space sector such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing. “It’s not just a defense contractor, it has a mission and transformative purpose to make the human race a multiplanetary species,” Diamandis said.

“There’s a much bigger driver here than just profitability. That’s something the traditional space industry can’t achieve,” he added. “That vision is intoxicating and powerful.”

Musk’s long-term vision can cut through the budgetary cycles of different presidencies in a way that Nasa, which is dependent on the White House science budget, can’t.

“There’s no Congress to convince, no shareholders to convince. Just him as an individual CEO with a conviction and the personal wealth to fund it,” Diamandis said.

As a result, SpaceX has pursued been able to develop technologies such as reusable rockets and methane-fuelled engines required for reaching deep space. “SpaceX is taking a level of risk and driving innovation on their own dime far faster than the government would ever contract for,” explained Diamandis.

Such purpose-driven engineering echoes the approach of NASA during the Space Race, when the US government was intent on beating the Soviets to the Moon. However, the US government has since become much more risk averse, said Diamandis. “NASA is a little bit lost in some ways.”

That’s not to say that SpaceX hasn’t relied on government funding to get to where it is. “The reality is that SpaceX exists today because NASA gave them a billion dollar contract for the Commercial Crew Program,” Diamandis said.


Olivia Solon in San Francisco

The GuardianTramp

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