Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, took the stage at the 68th International Aeronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, providing updates to his proposed colonization of Mars.
Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla’s electric vehicles, and more recently in the news discussing his hopes of bringing hyperloop transportation to the world, spoke at the 68th annual International Astronautical Congress, providing updates and revisions to perhaps his best known and certainly most ambitious enterprise, SpaceX. A private space exploration company founded by Musk in 2002, SpaceX is meant to tackle the already formidable goals of improving the cost and reliability of access to space, but it’s Musk’s plan to use these improvements to eventually colonize Mars that has fascinated fans and critics alike.
Last week’s presentation was primarily an update on his speech a year ago in Guadalajara, Mexico, where Musk outlined his rationale for going to Mars, which turned out to be nothing short of the survival of our species. “History is going to bifurcate along two directions: One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event,” he told the audience. “The alternative is to become a space-faring civilization and a multi-planet species.”
With the “why” out of the way, Musk then tackled the thornier question of “how,” which he framed as an exercise in cost reduction. The solution? Design a rocket system, called the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), with reusable components to drastically reduce the cost of each individual flight. To further reduce costs, the ITS would allow for refueling in orbit, with a relatively inexpensive propellant that can also be produced on Mars.
A year later, the broad scope of the plan remains the same, but the details and time scale have been updated. The key difference is the rocket design. It was originally expected to stand 400 feet tall and 39 feet wide, with a monstrous 128 meganewtons of thrust, capable of carrying up to 300 tons of payload. The new rocket design is “merely” 347 feet tall and 29.5 feet wide, with a commensurately lower 48 meganewtons of thrust and half the payload capacity. It’s called the BFR, which stands for exactly what you think it does. Although the design has shrunk, it earns the new name: when completed, it will be the largest and most powerful rocket ever created.
The recent joint announcement by Russia and the United States, at the same International Astronautical Congress, to work together toward developing a lunar space station, did not escape Musk’s attention. In addition to highlighting the BFR’s ability to dock with the ISS, he addressed its usefulness in enabling the creation of a moon base as well. “It’s 2017,” he told the audience. “ We should have a lunar base by now.”
The main goal, however, remains a Mars colony, and the timeline remains ambitious: by 2022, land two cargo missions on mars to confirm water resources and prepare infrastructure for future crew missions. In 2024, fly four ships, two cargo and two crew. Musk knows it’s ambitious (“That’s not a typo,” he clarified when the timeline was revealed), but he’s also serious. This timetable is built around the Earth-Mars synchronization that occurs roughly every two years, during which the distance between the planets is smallest. And, he told the audience, construction on the new ship should begin in six to nine months.
Finally, as if outlining the steps to a viable Mars colony wasn’t visionary enough, Musk ended with an entirely different vision, built on the same technology: if this ship is capable of taking people to Mars, he asked, could it also transport people around the globe right here on earth?
To appreciative applause, he described his vision of a scaled-down version of this rocket traveling at roughly 18,000 miles an hour to anywhere on earth. That translates to getting anywhere in under and hour, and most places in under half that. Details on the plan were vague, but a CGI simulation presenting images of a rocket launching from a floating pad in the New York City harbor tantalized the audience.
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