Starting as soon as 2018, Musk's SpaceX plans to fly an unmanned spacecraft to Mars. The unmanned flights would continue about every two years, timed for when Earth and Mars are closest in orbit, and, if everything goes according to plan, build toward the first human mission to Mars with the goal of landing in 2025, Musk has said.
But in an interview with The Washington Post this week, Musk laid out additional details for the first time, equating the spirit of the missions with the settlement of the New World by the colonists who crossed the Atlantic Ocean centuries ago. And he acknowledged the immense difficulties of getting to a planet that is, on average, 140 million miles from earth.
The months-long journey is sure to be "hard, risky, dangerous, difficult," Musk said, but he was confident people would sign up to go because "just as with the establishment of the English colonies, there are people who love that. They want to be the pioneers."
Before those pioneers board a rocket, though, Musk said the unmanned flights would carry science experiments and rovers to the planet. The equipment would be built either by SpaceX, or others. The early flights also would serve to better understand interplanetary navigation and allow the company to test its ability to safely land craft on Mars.
"Essentially what we're saying is we're establishing a cargo route to Mars," he said. "It's a regular cargo route. You can count on it. It's going happen every 26 months. Like a train leaving the station. And if scientists around the world know that they can count on that, and it's going to be inexpensive, relatively speaking compared to anything in the past, then they will plan accordingly and come up with a lot of great experiments."
The mission is all the more audacious in that SpaceX is a private company without the resources of a government agency. Nasa has previously said it would provide "technical support" for the 2018 mission, though not financially, in exchange for what it said was "valuable, descent and landing data to Nasa for our journey to Mars, while providing support to American industry." Nasa is planning its own manned Mars mission with the goal of landing in the 2030s. But some in Congress have indicated they are inclined to steer the agency back toward a moon mission first.
SpaceX's 2018 trip would use what the company calls its Dragon spacecraft boosted into space by Falcon Heavy, a massive rocket powered by 27 first-stage engines. When it flies for the first time later this year, it would become the "most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two," SpaceX says on its website. Falcon Heavy would have more than 5 million pounds of thrust at liftoff, or about the equivalent of 18 747 airplanes.
The rocket needs to be big. The Dragon spacecraft would become the largest object to land on the Martian surface "by a factor of 10," Musk said. That would make it one of the most ambitious Martian landings ever attempted - and difficult. Of the 43 robotic missions to Mars, including flybys, attempted by four different countries, only 18 have been total successes. The latest, a Nasa mission, delivered the unmanned Curiosity rover that is currently roaming the planet.
Some have pointed out that Musk's timeline is exceedingly ambitious, especially considering SpaceX has yet to fly the Falcon Heavy or land Dragon by using its own engine thrust, which is a key component to landing in the relatively thin Martian atmosphere.
By the next launch window, in 2020, Musk said the company would aim to fly at least two Falcon Heavy rockets and Dragon spacecraft, loaded with experiments. "By that time there will be quite a few organizations . . . that are interested in running experiments on Mars," he said.
Then in 2022, Musk said he hoped to launch what the company now sometimes refers to as the Mars Colonial Transporter, designed to bring a colony to Mars.
Musk declined to provide too many details, saying he would unveil the system at a conference in September. But he was clearly excited about the prospect and could barely contain himself.
"This is going to be mind blowing," he said. "Mind blowing. It's going to be really great."
At another point he said, "I'm so tempted to talk more about the details of it. But I have to restrain myself."
Still, he said that "the first mission wouldn't have a huge number of people on it because if something goes wrong, we want to risk the fewest number of lives as possible."
And he acknowledged that the company would have to "get lucky and things go according to plan" to hit a launch window for manned flight in late 2024, with a landing in 2025.
"But I do want to emphasize this is not about sending a few people to Mars," he continued. "It's about having an architecture that would enable the creation of a self-sustaining city on Mars with the objective of being a multi-planet species and a true space-faring civilization and one day being out there among the stars."
He said he hadn't yet figured out who would be among the first to go, or how they would be chosen. But he said they would be pioneers willing to take the risk. "Hopefully there's enough people who are like that who are willing to go build the foundation, at great risk, for a Martian city.
"It's dangerous and probably people will die - and they'll know that," he continued. "And then they'll pave the way, and ultimately it will be very safe to go to Mars, and it will very comfortable. But that will be many years in the future."
© 2016 The Washington Post