SpaceX and Boeing: the race to Mars is on

  • The early days of pondering humanity’s destiny
  • Envisaging a Martian city of millions
  • How would it be done and how much would it cost?
  • Musk should not be dismissed as a dreamer
  • Going neck on neck with Boeing – the race is on
  • The difference is that Musk has a mission, a much bigger purpose than mere profits

South African born engineer, inventor and innovator Elon Musk is known for his out of the box ideas. The SpaceX founder and Tesla and PayPal co-founder is the man behind the high-speed transportation system Hyperloop and the VTOL supersonic jet aircraft – the Musk electric jet. Musk has been thinking and talking about interplanetary travel and space colonisation from an early age and everything he has done up until now has been inspired by these ideas. He recently held a talk at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico in which he outlined SpaceX’s mission to colonise Mars.

The early days of pondering humanity’s destiny

Having been a thinker all his life, Elon Musk discovered very early on that in life one needs to ask the right questions. His question had always been: which things would have the greatest impact on the destiny of humanity? His own answers were: the Internet, the transition to sources of renewable energy and, yes, the colonisation of space. In 2001, in an attempt to get people interested in space exploration again, he conceptualised the ‘Mars Oasis’ project in which a miniature experimental green house with food crops would be established on Mars. In 2002, Musk founded SpaceX, or Space Exploration Technologies, developing space launch vehicles in order to advance the state of rocket technology. SpaceX has since become the largest private rocket motor manufacturer in the world.

Elon Musk overlaid over a photo of Mars and a satellite
According to Musk, because of its close proximity, Mars is one of the best options for colonisation.

Envisaging a Martian city of millions

According to Musk, because of its close proximity, Mars is one of the best options for colonisation. There is lots of water on Mars, abeit frozen beneath the surface, but “that can be warmed up”. The gravity on Mars is only 37 percent of that on Earth and the planet’s atmosphere contains carbon dioxide and nitrogen, an extremely important building block for life which can be found in most biomolecules, from amino acids to DNA.

Musk’s ultimate plan is to create a city of millions. This would however take anywhere from forty to a hundred years and tens of thousands of voyages with thousands of spaceships. In 2018, when Mars’ and Earth’s orbits bring the two planets closest to each other, Musk wants to send a Dragon 2 capsule to the Red Planet. He is planning to do the same every 27 months after that, transporting two tonnes of equipment to the surface of Mars each time the two planets are closest together.

How would it be done and how much would it cost?

During his talk at the annual International Astronautical Congress in Mexico last month, Musk outlined his plans of colonising Mars with SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System. The ITS would use a giant 12m diameter rocket booster with 49 engines, as well as a 17m diameter shuttle, creating a 122m high rocket. The rocket would be launched with empty fuel tanks and refuelled in orbit. Additional methane fuel would be created on Mars, to be able to return to Earth. In-orbit refuelling would reduce travel time from approximately six months to only eighty or even thirty days. Musk does admit that the first few transits will be very risky and people signing up for this will have to be prepared for the possibility of death.

Currently, taking the non-existent tech into account, a ticket to Mars would cost an estimated $10 billion, comparable to what a suborbital flight with Virgin Atlantic would cost. Once the ITS is fully operational, however, travelling to the Red Planet would ‘only’ set you back $200,000. Musk’s aim is to make travelling to Mars affordable for anyone who wants to go. Reducing costs would be accomplished by reusable technology, stronger rockets and lighter materials such as carbon fibre fuel tanks.

Musk should not be dismissed as a dreamer

During the Q&A session at last month’s congress, Musk said his biggest fear is investors taking over SpaceX after his death and only focusing on maximising profits instead of going to Mars. He wants to make sure that, should he not survive one of his Martian flights, SpaceX’s mission continues. Musk says that he is planning to have his first spaceship operational in 2019 and if all goes well, SpaceX will launch their first manned mission eight to ten years from now – ten to fifteen years earlier than Nasa is planning to accomplish it. Musk does however add that it’s going to cost a lot. SpaceX needs investors to jumpstart their Mars ambitions as they don’t have the funds to do this on their own. He adds that “there’s huge amounts of risk and a good chance we will not make it. But we’re going to try and do our best.”

With all his technical expertise, business acumen and a proven track record of making things happen, Musk is not merely a man with a dream. And even though history has proven that Musk has not always been able to move the world along as quickly as he would have liked to, he is still capable of moving the world along regardless. SpaceX’s biggest challenge is raising the funds and the mission will probably turn out to be a type of public-private venture. Whether or not his plans succeed will ultimately depend on whether he can gather enough like-minded individuals who are willing to invest for the greater purpose of making humans a multiplanetary species.

Going neck on neck with Boeing – the race is on

Dennis Muilenburg, CEO of Chicago-based aerospace giant Boeing, which recently celebrated its centennial anniversary, intends to beat Musk to his long-time dream of sending humans to Mars and colonising space. By building the first stage of the most powerful US rocket ever made, the Saturn V, Boeing once helped the US get to the moon in the sixties and seventies, before the Soviet Union could. They are now working on the Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket project aiming for the same goal Musk is planning to achieve with its ITS. It is clear that Boeing is no longer the only name in the space game and in this next era of space exploration, they are going neck on neck with SpaceX. Muilenburg is however convinced that the first person to reach Mars will get there by Boeing rocket. According to Muilenburg, space tourism will become a viable commercial market. The future will see commercial space-travel with many different space destinations orbiting planet Earth, and travellers being transported by hypersonic aircraft on leisure trips to the edges of space. And as space travel becomes more routine, Boeing wants to build out the commercial space industry close to Earth while at the same time develop technology to travel to the moon and beyond.

The difference is that Musk has a mission, a much bigger purpose than mere profits

What sets Musk’s mission apart from Boeing and other players in the space industry is that Musk has a powerful and inspiring vision. A purpose much higher than mere profitability. He wants to make Mars seem possible, something we can do in our lifetimes. Musk is not interested in merely visiting Mars, his mission is to colonise it. To build a civilisation, something the traditional space sector is not very likely to achieve. Musk says: “There’s two fundamental paths for the human race. One of them is to stay on Earth until some extinction event wipes us out – and history suggests that some type of doomsday event will eventually occur. The other path is to become a space-faring, multi-planetary species.”

Provided both parties aren’t merely publicly boasting, Boeing’s and SpaceX’s toe-to-toe race to the Red Planet might just set the competition in motion and could make Mars a realistic future destination. According to Musk: “I think it’s actually much better for the world if there are multiple companies or organisations building interplanetary spacecraft. Anything that improves the probability of the future is good. And so multiple companies doing it, I think, would be great.”

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