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.
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.
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.
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.
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.