Well, we waited a long time, but today Elon Musk finally stepped out on stage to rapturous applause at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Mexico to reveal his plans to colonize Mars. And there was a lot to get through.
As hinted by Musk the other day, his proposal is called the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). It involves sending 100 people at a time on a giant rocket, the biggest in history (bigger even than NASA's Saturn V), to the surface of the Red Planet.
“I want to make Mars seem possible to do in our lifetimes,” said Musk in his presentation (you can watch a replay of the talk here). “I want anyone to go if they want to.”
The unnamed rocket (currently just given the moniker “Mars Vehicle”) certainly looks impressive. On top, it will have a specially designed spaceship that can carry either humans or cargo. At the bottom, 42 of SpaceX's new methane-fueled Raptor engines take the rocket into orbit, and then return it safely back to the launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida, ready for another launch.
An animation of how the Mars missions would work. SpaceX
To make the jaunts to Mars, one spaceship will launch with the people on board and then another will take the fuel to orbit. The latter will dock with the former, fill it with a methane-based fuel, and then the journey to Mars can begin. The first would be called "Heart of Gold", Musk said, a nod to The Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy.
It sounds fanciful but Musk, in typical Musk fashion, gave a hugely optimistic timeline for the first launch – 10 years from now, around 2026 or even as early as 2024. Yikes.
What's more, he even hinted that he wants to terraform Mars and make it livable for humans without a spacesuit – although he didn't give many details on how he planned to do this, other than showing an artist's impression of a terraformed Mars.
What a terraformed Mars might look like. Elon Musk/SpaceX
To get this rolling, he said SpaceX were planning to launch a mission to Mars (beginning with unmanned Red Dragon missions) in every available Mars rendezvous launch window starting in 2018. That's every 26 months, when Earth and Mars align for a favorable launch.
He said that, at the moment, about 5 percent of the SpaceX staff are working on the ITS. Ultimately, he is aiming to take a million people to Mars, a total of 10,000 trips across 40 to 100 years. To make sure the journey to Mars is “fun” (which will take up to five months), Musk said the spaceships would have zero-g games, a restaurant, and so on.
And, at the end of the day, these spaceships are designed to take off from Mars, too. If people want to return, they can, says Musk. No Mars One hocus pocus magic here.
Perhaps most impressively of all is the cost. The whole thing, rocket and spaceship, is designed to be reusable, building on SpaceX's already successful reusable Falcon 9 tests. At the moment, a trip to Mars with current methods would cost $10 billion per person. Musk wants to make the trip comparable to buying a house – roughly $200,000 a ticket, which is about the same as the short six-minute suborbital hops planned by Virgin Galactic.
Musk, pictured talking at the IAC 2016 event. Elon Musk/SpaceX
Looks impressive, but will it do what it says on the tin? Elon Musk/SpaceX