Making Humans Interplanetary – SpaceX

This week I have had the privilege to attend the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. This is by far the biggest annual meeting of all those involved in the Space Industry, with attendance from all the major Space Agencies across the world. Now, the most anticipated talk of the week was Elon Musk’s from SpaceX and his vision to make humans an interplanetary species and take us to Mars. The excitement around this talk was palpable with queues (which slowly descended into chaotic crowds) forming outside the main hall. The Rock Star of the Space Industry was coming.

Musk opened with the statement of how humanity faces two fundamental paths, ‘one is that we stay on Earth forever and then there will be an inevitable extinction event’ and the alternative ‘to become a spacefaring civilisation, and a multi planetary species.’ And under SpaceX, this interplanetary opportunity would open to the humble everyday man/woman who can afford the ticket price of $200,000.

The excitement in the room was sky-high with repetitive rounds of clapping and the occasion shout of ‘Elon I love you’ as he spoke of his vision which seemed to make the journey so accessible, so achievable in our lifetime. Desperately we awaited more details of the Interplanetary Transport System and then we heard it, the key ingredient: reusability. Musk’s plan involves a fully reusable transport system that would take 100 people at time on an 80 day voyage to the Red Planet.

The system would involve a multi-stage launch. SpaceX would construct the world’s largest rocket which would launch the spaceship, carrying the 100 people, into Earth Orbit. The rocket and the spaceship combined would stand a whopping 122m tall and the rocket will consist of 42 ‘Raptor engines’ producing the most firepower history has every seen! Now the rocket booster after deploying the spaceship will then return to Earth and land, be loaded up with a fuel tanker then launched again to refuel the spaceship whilst it is in orbit. Why? Mass. To launch the system carrying the people and enough fuel in one go would be far too heavy to be feasible. By adopting this two stage process the mission can get more people off the ground in a more durable ship. So then off the spaceship itself goes, deploying solar arrays as ‘wings’ to help propel it on its journey to Mars. This journey will be timed such that it begins when distance between Earth and Mars is preferably small. This happens every two years where the two planets are 57.6 million km apart and Musk believes at these interims the journey could take 80 days alone.

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Musk explained the four key pillars to his mission’s success:

  • Full Reusability
  • Refilling in Orbit
  • Propellant Production on Mars
  • The Right Propellant

So we’ve covered the first two, lets move on to what happens when the first humans reach the dusty surface and become Martians. The spaceship will decelerate as it enters the Martian atmosphere and the land on extendable legs. Then, the idea is that whilst the humans go about their business colonising the surface (more about the flaws of this later) the ship will be able to produce it’s own fuel from the methane present on Mars for the return journey home. Musk believes methane will be the the right propellant due to its natural presence on the Red Planet – for the less we can take out with us from Earth the better, less mass, less fuel, less cost, quicker mission… you get the idea. Being reusable is the key ingredient as the ship must then return to pick up more humans and start the process all over again. As a population of 100 is far too few to be self sustaining.

Now Musk believes this first flight will occur in 2022 and until then un-manned cargo ships will be sent over to Mars to provide further information prior to the mission and better equip the humans when they arrive. These spacecrafts will be called ‘Red Dragons’. These missions will also allow governments and private businesses to send payloads – a technical term for space instruments – to the planet.

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Now all very well and good so far. But two gaping holes in the master plan remain. First funding – right now the estimated cost of sending someone to Mars stands at about $10bn per person how exactly is he intending to get this down to as little as $200,000? Reusability of the system he quoted would reduce this cost by ‘orders of magnitude’ but no actual quantitative logic was given. I understand he didn’t want to make his speech a lecture on accountancy but still.. And how does SpaceX find the money to begin construction of such a mammoth mission?! SpaceX gains revenue by sending cargo to and from the International Space Station for NASA and launching satellites on their behalf but surely this isn’t sufficient for the world’s most colossal space project. Musk also mentioned committing all his own personal assets to the cause with the selfless quote of ‘having no other purpose than to make life interplanetary’ but even so much more is necessary than the deep pockets of the world’s most popular entrepreneur. The mission needs commercial backing from numerous other large private businesses, public funding and basically the world’s support to get off the ground. To plan an interplanetary mission the entire host planet needs to back the cause. If we want to see human’s become an interplanetary species all humans need to wake up and push their government to think past the needs of their country or the needs of their continent.. we all need to start thinking interplanetary.

Secondly, what happens we actually get to Mars. Musk made no guise of the fact that SpaceX is the transport system alone, the health and the safety of the human beings is not in his remit. There was no plan for how the colonisation of the planet would actually occur, how energy would be generated, how to overcome Martian dust or how to protect against the extreme radiation the travellers would be exposed to on the journey. What’s the use of putting all this money and time into making humans interplanetary if all the voyagers either die on transit or within months of being there?! There needs to be a bigger plan, the SpaceX mission needs intense collaboration from other big players in sectors such as health, architecture, energy.. the list goes on. When asked if Musk himself wanted to go to Mars he replied vaguely that he didn’t want to take the risk of dying and he needed to see his kids grow up. Not very reassuring words?! He made no qualms about the fact that SpaceX was all about making the journey alone feasible, though what a fun journey it would be with restaurants and zero-G games aboard the spaceship! But who wants to go on the most expensive cruise in the world if the destination is a hell-hole? When asked how much training the voyageurs would need and whether anybody could go he replied – sure you just need the money and a few days of training. A response like this to me this sounds like a suicide mission, if we’re sending humans to Mars we need the smartest, brightest people, basically those with astronaut credentials who had spent years working towards this, who would know exactly what to do upon arrival to give the Mars city the best shot possible of success.

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I can’t tell if it was Musk’s subdued delivery or not but it oddly sounded like his vision for this mission was purely a tourist adventure without care for whether the colony would actually evolve into a stable community. Now i’m all for the normal guy getting to go interplanetary but the key point is he shouldn’t be the first. I understand Musk wants to make this mission sound open and accessible to gain more interest but i’d much rather be the 10000th person on the planet which had strong systems set up than the 10th in a wasteland. Musk keep alluding to the vision of ‘terraforming’ the Earth but this isn’t going to happen by sending over a crew of unprepared humans. We need the most detailed plan the world has ever seen.

So overall I say; SpaceX your vision is magnificent and I want nothing more than for people to think big and push humanity’s boundaries; to go interplanetary is indeed crucial to the survival of the human race. However SpaceX needs to think even bigger still, this needs to be a mission which involves the efforts and cooperation of many more so that when that ship touches down on Mars, we don’t just arrive, we thrive.

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I won’t make a habit of posting photos of myself but I felt extremely privileged to be at the IAC so thought i’d share my elation of spending a week surrounded by fellow Space-nerds.

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40 responses to “Making Humans Interplanetary – SpaceX

  1. I agree with your assessment of the SpaceX mission. I posted some articles on NASA’s efforts to do the same thing and they are looking at 2030 or later for their Journey to Mars project. The success of either of these projects will be setting up the foundation for any future explorations. I only hope to be around long enough to see it.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. ‘To plan an interplanetary mission the entire host planet needs to back the cause.’ I think therein will lie the rub. We can barely back each other as nations, and Elon wants us to be friends globally by 2022? I agree with you; sounds a bit more illusory than pragmatic.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I completely agree, as a species we need to realise how insignificant our geographical/political/religious divides are in order to work towards something bigger. Whether the human race has the capacity to do this is something I sadly find myself doubting at times…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Entrepreneurs need to set incredible goals for people to be motivated. 2022 is not a joke, it’s a goal that everything else needs to be built around. Bad things happen that may delay results, but the vision needs to be clear and aggressive. So I don’t think of it as a joke. Read Musk’s biography (my review here: https://norberthaupt.com/2015/07/17/book-review-elon-musk-by-ashlee-vance/) for insight into his character.

      Liked by 2 people

      • You have got some point though I still think it is highly unrealistic. People of course like to hear such “wow” things, the question is what year he will really make it in. I bet Musk will get far, he already showed what he is capable of but 2022 seems to me too soon considering the stage he is at right now and all the obstacles he will have to solve.

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      • Norbert, indeed and by pressing this date, even if not anything else, Musk is pushing the space community to quicken their efforts and creating the mindset this next leap in space exploration can and should be completed in our lifetime.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Not so much, there was the mention of continually sending payloads across to Mars on the ‘Red Dragon’ missions to perform experiments and help us learn more before we arrived. Lockheed Martin/NASA however, have a different approach of creating a Mars Base Camp with humans in a ship which orbits the planet, from which they control rovers etc on the surface. I heard this the other day and hope to do a second post on their ideas soon!

      Liked by 2 people

  3. “The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.” Steve Jobs said that, but I think it is currently most applicable to Elon Musk. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This project is amazing, but to be honest I’m not preoccupied about the funding, costs, re-usability etc, as much as I’m worried about the human damage that will be inflicted upon the beautiful planet due to human egotism.

    Liked by 1 person

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  7. Your article is amazing ❤ I really like how you summarized everything that happened and the Interplanetary Transport system, would recommend you to read mine as well and comment what you think about it 🙂 just thinking, what do you mean when saying 80 day voyage, isn't the trip to Mars an 8 month journey? :O I reallyyy liked your post, and please continue writing about space and science!!! I appreciate your work 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much for your comment and support! Well depending on the distance between the Earth and Mars (which can vary) at their closest which occurs about once every two years Musk believes this can be achieved in 80 days! The journey time can vary considerable perhaps into the 100s but I wouldn’t think it would take 240 (8 months) at any point. I will be sure to check out your post!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. It seems to me that such a project would happen in a few decades into the future, and not right now. From what you’ve written, SpaceX doesn’t even have the funding right now.

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    • They do indeed have enough funding to begin and the project and will be able to generate revenue over time especially through their collaborative efforts through NASA but yes I agree it does seem very unfeasible to get the ticket figures down to $200,000 a ticket as Musk envisages! & Musk was seemed very vague on the quantitative details on how he would go about achieving such a price. Thanks for stopping by!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This is absurd, who ever goes on this is clearly setting themselves up. They can’t survive our bodies aren’t accustomed to all of those changes, NASA astronauts go through professional training, specific diets, exercise this is nuts I am very open minded but this, this is crazy. The government just wants to make money and we are over populated, how can’t people see this is a death trap.

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    • Yes I agree, anyone that signed up for the first journey with SpaceX would require heavy astronautical style training! The programme needs to be a much wider endeavour with collaboration from many industries to make Mars as habitable as possible when we arrive and those that do arrive need to be ready to do contribute as successfully to the vision as possible.

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    • Thank you very much Jason! Yes I have heard a bit about plans from other private companies in the Space Sector such as Virgin Galactic and Lockheed Martin regarding their efforts. If you can bear with me I hope to write a post on their ideas soon!

      Liked by 1 person

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  11. Reblogged this on thepageofdaniel and commented:
    Elon Musk seems to be reasonably well – versed in how to explore & settle Mars, but has he any plans for the beginning of an infrastructure ? & what of the Moon ? I think the Lunar environment would be nearly ideal as a construction yard for spacecraft to Mars & beyond. Baby steps….. Then we jump.

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