"The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever". Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (SpaceX)

An audacious new JFK Moon speech? Or the ambitious hyperbole of a tech billionaire megalomaniac? TIM ROBINSON examines Elon Musk’s grand scheme to make humanity an ‘multi-planet species’. Does it stack up?

Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Guadalajara, Mexico, last week, SpaceX’s Elon Musk unveiled an ambitious plan for the colonisation of Mars using massive reusable launchers. Having studied the problem of reducing the cost of $30bn per person to around $200,000, Musk believes the answer lies in four factors – full reusability, refuelling in orbit, propellant production on Mars, and using the right propellant.

The technical specs

ITS architecture concept. (SpaceX)

SpaceX’s concept would see giant 400ft high Interplanetary Transportation System (ITS) launchers – each with 42 Raptor engines, (three times the power of Falcon 9’s Merlin engines). This would enable the ITS, with lift-off thrust of 13,033t to put a staggering 550t into LEO – compared with Saturn V’s 135t into LEOs. Once launched, the booster would return to Earth and land vertically on the launch pad, while the interplanetary spaceship would then be refuelled in orbit by the same booster this time with a fuel payload. Refuelling in orbit, argues Musk, means that this concept avoids needing a three-stage vehicle at 5-10 times the cost of the ITS.

The interplanetary spaceship itself would be sized to take 100 colonialists at a time, with Musk envisaging a fleet setting off ‘en masse’ for the Red Planet every two years – allowing for a transit time of 80 days. With the deep-cryo methanelox propellant and the powerful Raptor engines, SpaceX believes this journey time could fall to perhaps 30 days.

Arriving at Mars, the colonist spaceship (Musk has yet to name it, though he says he may use ‘Heart of Gold’ from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy for the first one) would aero-brake in the Martian atmosphere to slow down, before landing vertically – ready to be reused.


Uncrewed Red Dragon missions would pave the way to Mars for the ITS (SpaceX).

By such large rockets regularly setting off for Mars, Musk predicts that a self-sustaining colony of around 1million people could be established on the Red Planet over the next 40-100 years. Key to the system architecture is to use resources on Mars to refuel the ship. Effectively unlimited supplies of water and carbon dioxide on Mars would be converted into fuel – again bringing the cost of the missions down.

Using reusable boosters and spaceships, Musk believes the cost of sending a human to Mars could fall from $30bn to around $200,000. Each booster would be reused 1,000 times, with tankers re-used 100 times and the manned spaceship itself 12 times. 

Incredibly, hardware is already being built. SpaceX has begun live-fire testing the new Raptor engine and during the presentation Musk also revealed it had already built a huge composite fuel tank prototype for the booster rocket.

Finally Musk also believes that the lander/colony ship, with enough room for 100 humans and its vertical landing and take-off capability also means it could be used for other missions beyond Mars, such as a flypast of Jupiter or landing on Saturn’s Enceladus moon.

No bucks, no Buck Rogers?

The ITS would require considerable investment in infrastructure to achieve the planned reuse and re-flight rates (SpaceX) 

Those who watched the ‘Disney’s World of Tomorrow’ style SpaceX animation of the ITS filling up with colonists two by two and listened to Musk’s presentation where he described the flight to Mars as really 'fun’ for passengers, may well scoff at these grandiose plans – especially for a company which is still figuring out what caused its Falcon 9 rocket to explode.

The sheer scale of the plan and its audaciousness makes the easiest question – how much will it cost? And who will pay? In the 1960s, it took the resources of one of two superpowers using essentially a wartime production mode, to put humans on the Moon in 1969. Beyond that, even the US could not afford to go to Mars. NASA’s plans for Apollo follow-on missions to Mars were scaled dramatically down to the Skylab and Space Shuttle. During his IAC speech, Musk said that initial development of the ICT, might be expected to cost $10bn – to some critics an absurdly low figure. (In comparison, Boeing, for example, is believed to have sunk $32bn in developing the 787 Dreamliner).

Even if money can be found, there are still immense technical challenges that are yet to be addressed. Some 12 years after another billionaire tantalised the public by launching the world’s first space tourist company, Virgin Galactic has yet to fly its first commercial sub-orbital flight.

And as the explosion on the launch pad of the Falcon 9 only last month showed, rocket science is still hard. Having a Falcon 9 explode is bad enough – but what would be the effect if a complete ITS exploded at Cape Canaveral with 100 colonists onboard in a huge-fireball that might equal the blast of a small nuclear weapon? Musk may say that those wanting to move to Mars must be prepared to die in this grand adventure – but it is unclear what would happen if that many people were vapourised on take-off live on YouTube.

In his presentation, Musk also downplayed the effects of cosmic radiation on the would-be colonists – an issue both for the flight and humans once established on Mars.

The proposal also has political risks. In unveiling this plan, Musk may be (unconsciously or consciously) risking biting the hand that feeds him by undermining the rationale for NASA’s giant Space Launch System (SLS) launcher and its ‘Journey to Mars’. So far NASA has been happy to award contracts to Musk and other private space companies for re-supply of the ISS in LEO, believing that the space agency’s efforts are best directed to more ambitious exploration missions. Indeed, NASA Chief Administrator Charles Bolden recently said he was not a “big fan” of commercial investment in large launchers (such as Falcon Heavy) yet.

However, with only two planned flights and one asteroid mission, critics have been calling NASA’s own SLS: ‘a rocket without a mission’. Musk may not have a rocket yet, but he has a clear plan to Mars and SpaceX’s ICT (along with perhaps Jeff Bezos’s New Armstrong launcher) show that private entrepreneurs have lost patience with NASA’s nebulous ‘Journey to Mars’ concept that seems to exist only in CGI and is reliant on begging Congress for extra funds.

There is one final factor. With such as long-term, global project as the colonisation of another planet which will take decades, what is the succession plan when Musk steps down, or if in the worst case illness or an accident removes him? One might argue that humanity’s future in space ought to be larger than one person – but it is important to consider whether the same momentum could be sustained without Musk at the helm. In the 1960s, the Soviet Union, not short of scientists and engineers, suffered a fatal blow to its space programme when Sergei Korolev (known only in the US as the Chief Designer), passed away, leaving the US to win the race to the Moon. Is there a robust succession plan at SpaceX?

To Boldly Go

Some hardware has already been built - like this giant composite fuel tank for the ITS booster. (SpaceX)

Yet as fantastical as this project seems, there are grounds for hope. First, SpaceX, since it was formed in 2004, has undoubtedly shaken up the launcher industry forever – forcing established competitors on both sides of the Atlantic to cut costs and innovate. Coming from nowhere - a start-up rocket company has won prized contracts from NASA, resupplied the ISS and is developing a manned version of its Dragon capsule. Its reusable rocket technology, the key to bringing down the cost of Mars flights, has wowed even hardened sceptics by returning first stages vertically to Earth. At the time, it was unclear why SpaceX was pouring so much effort (including additional mass) into making its launchers reusable. We now know that these vertical landings were test demonstrations as part of a far larger concept.

Key parts of this epic plan are coming together with hardware already built. Musk has revealed that the Raptor engine has been fired for the first time on the ground, and a giant composite fuel tank prototype from the booster has already been built. SpaceX, too, has been successful in attracting the best and brightest of US engineers and graduates – who in the 1960s would have gone instead to NASA. These successes, then, suggest that despite glibness over radiation hazards and the ‘Hitchikers Guide’ name, Musk and SpaceX have done vast amounts of serious engineering homework in putting together this proposal.

It is also important to remember that this project, although grandiose, will be accomplished in stages, to test and de-risk the technology. Musk plans that regular unmanned missions using the Red Dragon capsule could begin as early as 2018, allowing scientists to hitch a ride to Mars using SpaceX technology. Ship testing is set to begin in mid-2018, with booster testing in 2019, leading to orbital testing from 2020 onwards. Finally, Mars flights using the ITS could begin around 2023.

Outside the technology itself, there is another factor – that of charisma and sparking the imaginations of millions. In 1962, John F Kennedy’s iconic Moon speech at Rice University to set a goal to put a man on the Moon ‘before this decade is out’ caused heart attacks within NASA at the time. As legendary flight director Gene Kranz noted: “At that point we had exactly 20 minutes of manned spaceflight experience.” However, once set to the task, what was considered impossible for America in 1962 came true only seven years later.

Finally, it is also worth remembering that although Elon Musk is the frontman of SpaceX, for this venture he will need to assemble a far, far bigger public-private partnership of companies, organisations and nations. Thus, if one uses the analogy of US railroads opening up the West, it may be that, within its overall space infrastructure, there emerges competitors to provide in-orbit refuelling, construct Martian bases, operate passenger flights, carry cargo and so on. It is thus possible that by offering a ‘turn-key’ manned Mars space mission, SpaceX may be able to attract funding from investors, venture capitalists and even rich states who believe that investment could pay off in terms of commercial riches and huge prestige further down the line.


Infinity and beyond? SpaceX sees its ITS cargo/passenger ship as being the ideal vehicle to explore the Solar System. (SpaceX)

But in conclusion let us take a step back. Dreaming of colonising Mars with a fleet of rocket ships is not just Elon’s goal. In fact, the father of the US Apollo project, Wernher Von Braun, also had an almost identical vision nearly 70 years ago of massed fleets arriving in Martian orbit. The men and women working hard at SpaceX, too, have the same goal – a simple one – get to Mars. Unconstrained by voters, short-term election cycles and budget funding, Elon Musk is appealing to those people who, even if they could not (or would not) move to another planet themselves, would back and support a giant adventure that could inspire, unite and challenge humanity.

As JFK noted: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept.”

With that speech, JFK harnessed the US Government and public to a single goal. Will future historians mark last week’s speech as the moment when Elon Musk inspired the entire globe to become an interplanetary species?

4 October 2016