Yesterday, Elon Musk revealed his plan to colonize Mars by sending 1 million people there by the end of the century. That was a weird sentence to write.
It all sounds a bit crazy, and it is. There are a huge number of unknowns, seemingly insurmountable challenges, and so on. You can view all the slides from the presentation here, a replay of the live stream here, and see an animation of the proposal here.
So what do we know so far, and what are some of the outstanding questions about Musk’s plan? Let’s take a look.
What did Musk reveal?
A huge new rocket and spaceship that will take people to Mars, and possibly other destinations like Europa and Enceladus, dubbed the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS).
How big is the rocket?
It's 122 meters (400 feet) tall, making it the biggest rocket in history. NASA’s Saturn V, the current record holder, was 111 meters (364 feet). Musk's vehicle will also be three and a half times more powerful.
How the Mars Vehicle compares to the Saturn V. SpaceX
How will it work?
A spaceship laden with people will launch into Earth orbit. Here, it will dock with another ship carrying fuel, and stock up on said fuel. The former will then journey to Mars, travel through the atmosphere, and land vertically on the surface using thrusters.
People will then step out onto Mars and... do something. We don't know that part of things yet.
The rockets and spaceships are all designed to be reusable, saving on cost.
How long will it take to get there?
As short as 80 days.
When will it launch?
Musk optimistically says the first manned launch will be as soon as 2024, with the whole project taking 40 to 100 years to complete. Unmanned practice launches will begin in 2018 with the Red Dragon spacecraft.
Who will go?
Anyone. Each ship can take 100 people (and later 200) to Mars. Musk envisions 10,000 launches to get 1 million people there.
To save the human race from extinction.
Uh, okay. Is this realistic?
Depends who you ask. SpaceX fanatics will say yes – Musk has grown the company from nothing in 2002 to one of the world’s primary launch operators today.
Musk also revealed that 5 percent of SpaceX staff are already working on this at the moment, and they’ve also developed the rocket’s engines (Raptor). He even showed off a prototype fuel tanker for the spaceship.
The prototype fuel tanker. SpaceX
Others, though, are a lot more cynical. Getting to Mars is hard – really hard. There’s a reason humans have never gone.
Aside from the money issue, which is a big one (we’ll come to that), the fact remains that we weren’t shown much more than pretty pictures and videos. This is a pipe dream at the moment; Musk was honest about that.
But the idea of launching this in 10 years seems a bit ridiculous. The rocket hasn’t been built. Nothing has been tested. There are no plans to support the colony on Mars. This thing is bigger than any rocket in history.
Even if everything were to tick along smoothly, the whole thing borders on unfathomable at the moment. Prove us wrong, Elon.
How much will it cost?
Current models suggest a cost of $10 billion per person to Mars. Musk wants to lower this to $200,000. It’s not clear how, nor what the total cost of the project would be. A rough estimate would suggest in the hundreds of billions.
How will people survive on Mars?
That, Musk did not address. And there are a ridiculous amount of unknowns about surviving on Mars.
Journeying to the Red Planet is often compared to discovering the Americas. The difference, though, is that we could live off the resources in the Americas. You can’t live on Mars without massive infrastructure. You can’t even breathe the air without dying.
What will the people do on Mars? We don’t know. How will they live off the land? Don’t know. What equipment would they have and use? Don’t know. Habitats? Ditto.
Can we use Mars’ resources?
Maybe. We know there’s a lot of water-ice there, and possibly water under the surface. Musk says the upcoming unmanned Red Dragon missions, beginning in 2018, will find out the best ways to access Martian water.
There’s also a lot of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which could be useful.
Will Musk do it alone?
No. He wants to bring on board international partners, either governments like China and the US or private companies.
Musk said his idea is not just limited to Mars. SpaceX
What’s the ultimate goal?
To have a self-sustaining colony of a million people on Mars. Musk also fancifully suggested he wanted to terraform Mars, and make its atmosphere Earth-like. God knows how he’s planning to do that, although there are some ideas floating around.
What implications does this have for life on Mars?
Musk seemed pretty unconcerned about planetary protection rules. He said there were no signs of life on the Martian surface, so the contamination issue essentially didn't matter. NASA, however, might disagree.
So, is it going to happen?
It’s easy to be cynical about all this. Will it ever happen? Who knows. Is it fun to think about? Sure. Will it inspire some people to get involved with spaceflight? Maybe.
But history is strewn with failed space projects of a similarly grand scale (hello Inspiration Mars and Mars One).
People will say Musk had similar detractors when he first started SpaceX. That’s true. But things are different. Before, he was entering a market with known technologies to build a new rocket.
Now, he wants to create something never done before. He wants people to agree to go to Mars to die. He wants hundreds of billions of dollars to create a science fiction-esque rocket and spaceship.
Musk, himself, is no stranger to science fiction. He even wants to name the first spaceship Heart of Gold, after the famous ship in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.
At the moment, though, you'd be forgiven for thinking this sounds like a fanboy's wishlist for the future, albeit a very rich fanboy.