November 29, 2012

What We Know About Elon Musk’s Proposed Mars Colony

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has caused quite the commotion in recent days with his proposal to create a human colony on Mars, first unveiled in some detail during a November 16 talk at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London, UK.
But after news reports of the talk quoted Musk as saying he’d like to send 80,000 people to the Red Planet in the not-too-distant future, Musk himself upped the ante: Taking to Twitter on Tuesday, the charismatic multi-industry entrepreneur (Musk also founded Tesla Motors and Solar City, and before that co-founded PayPal) clarified that he actually planned to send 80,000 people to Mars every year once the colonization process begins, for a total of millions of human settlers on Mars.

“Millions of people needed for Mars colony, so 80k+ would just be the number moving to Mars per year,” Musk tweeted on Tuesday afternoon, linking to a Yahoo News re-post of an earlier article that quoted the SpaceX founder.

“And, yes, I do in fact know that this sounds crazy,” Musk tweeted, immediately following. “That is not lost on me. Nor I do think SpaceX will do this alone.”
“But if humanity wishes to become a multi-planet species, then we must figure out how to move millions of people to Mars,” Musk continued. 

Musk’s Mars colony proposal is still a long way to commencing and lacks many key details on just how it would work, but based on what the entrepreneur has revealed about his plans so far, here’s what we know about how he and his collaborators would even go about pursuing such a colony, given no humans have even visited Mars temporarily yet:

Reusable rockets are key

Musk has been repeating this refrain for a while now and did so again in his talk to the Royal Aeronautical Society (video below), but it bears repetition because it is arguably the most important intergal step in getting a Mars colonization plan together.

“I think it’s a pivotal step on the way to establishing a self-sustaining civilization on Mars,” Musk said during his talk, regarding reusable rocketry. “If we don’t do that I don’t think we’ll able to afford it, because it’s the difference between something costing half a percent of GDP and all of GDP.” 

“The reason to be able to do the vertical landing is because we’re aspiring to achieve a breakthrough that is extremely important for rocketry which is rapid and complete reusability,” Musk said during his talk (9:55). “It’s important that it be both rapid and complete — like an aircraft or a car, or a horse, or a bicycle. Even if you had to repaint a plane between flights you’d currently more than double the cost of the ticket.”

SpaceX has been working toward the goal of a fully reusable rocket by using technologies that it has already proven to be successful — namely its Falcon 9 rocket and Merlin engines, which powered two flights to the International Space Station earlier this year and the company has incorporated into a new test craft called Grasshopper, which is designed to perform vertical takeoff and vertical landing (VTVL). SpaceX has tested the Grasshopper craft twice in late 2012 so far, performing two complete “test hops,” at its site in McGregor, Texas. Below is video of the latest, in early November.

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