SpaceX: Mars Is Our Future

[/caption]Elon Musk is not one to rest on prior accomplishments; he likes to continue to push forward – his plans for the future of commercial space flight reflect that philosophy. He has stated his plans to begin crewed flights to Mars. Musk thinks that humans can set foot on the red planet within the next 10 to 20 years. He stated that the rationale behind mankind becoming a multi-planet species should be obvious to all.

“Ultimately, it is vital that we are on a path to becoming a multi-planet species,” said Musk. “If we don’t then our future isn’t very bright, we’ll simply be hanging out on Earth until some calamity claims us.”

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft is set to head to the International Space Station this December. SpaceX has plans to use the spacecraft in potential Martian missions. Image Credit: SpaceX

Musk made the announcement of his intent during this month’s meeting of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) that was held in San Diego, California.

SpaceX would presumably utilize the Falcon Heavy rocket, which is slated to conduct its first launch either at the end of 2012 or the beginning of 2013. Whereas the Falcon 9 features nine engines in its first stage, the Falcon Heavy, being a triple-body design similar of the Delta IV Heavy – would utilize 27 Merlin engines. It is estimated that the Falcon Heavy could send 12 to 15 metric tons to orbit.

The proposed Falcon Heavy is scheduled to launch either some time next year or in the early part of 2013. Image Credit: SpaceX

The spacecraft that would fly any mission to the red planet would theoretically be an offshoot of the vehicle that SpaceX sent to orbit last December, the Dragon. In fact the craft/project has already been dubbed the “Red Dragon.”

NASA currently plans to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars sometime in the 2030s. If SpaceX is successful, this would be far faster than what the space agency has stated it is capable of accomplishing.

SpaceX has had a number of successes lately. It has successfully launched two of its heavy-lift Falcon 9 rockets, the second of which carried the first of the company’s Dragon spacecraft to orbit. Shortly thereafter the company recovered the vehicle as it bobbed safely in the Pacific Ocean after returning safely to Earth. The feat of sending spacecraft to and from orbit had only been accomplished by nations before this.

The NewSpace firm is working to speed up the timeline of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract, worth an estimated $1.6 billion, that the company has with NASA. SpaceX has requested and technically received permission to send the next Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) this December. Originally this flight would have been a flyby of the orbiting laboratory to test out several of the spacecraft’s key operating systems. However, one of the ISS partners, Russia, has yet to sign off on this plan however.

Musk wants to see his "Red Dragon" on the surface of Mars within the next 20 years. Image Credit: SpaceX

The California-based company was also tapped to participate in NASA’s Crew Commercial Development contract (phase 2) – more commonly known as CCDev-02. SpaceX was selected along with Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Blue Origin. Each firm was awarded a different cash sum to accomplish the proposals that they had set forth.

SpaceX is a company whose scope appears to be rapidly expanding. The announcement at the AIAA by Musk appears to highlight this fact. Mars has long been the destination of choice for many within the space community. Funding and logistics woes have delayed the first manned mission from ever taking place. It remains to be explained how the mission will be flown, will it be unilateral, multi-national or some other mixture? Will private industry take the lead? For his part Musk has thrown down the gauntlet – “Red Dragon” could fly as early as 2018.

SpaceX toured the Dragon spacecraft that flew to orbit this past December around the country in order to demonstrate the company's growing capabilities. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

73 Replies to “SpaceX: Mars Is Our Future”

  1. “…launched to of its heavy-left Falcon 9 rockets”

    Great. So all of us lefties are moving to Mars after all.

    I thought Space X had plans to develop a XX version of their heavy lift vehicle. Something on the order of 100 tons or more; comparable to the Saturn V in tonnage. Has the plan shifted to a modular mission?

    1. I here yosue, yeah, to for two, left for lift, what is the –what is the worild comming ta, anywaw.

      If 12-15 tons is all this baby can do 100+ tons will be “built the thing in space from modular units”.

      The engine type would have to be of greater thrust than the Merlin (current designation) and there would be additional goals that type of engine in a cluster could do. Isn’t it something like 75% of the mass of any rocket is consumed to accelerate to 50% of the intended orbital insertion velocity?


      1. Falcon Heavy will put 53 tons to orbit, also the Merlin 2 engine will easily be the most powerful engine ever built will more than quadruple that weight. we live in a most wonderful time for the Adventure to begin

      2. Yes, Musk notes that 2-3 Falcon-Heavy launches sets up a minimal Mars mission. It can be cheaper than the Curiosity mission.

      3. To spell differently is “to fail a little creative”. [sips his t with lemon]

    2. That is about it. I really do not think humans are migrating to Mars any time soon.


    3. Hi Uncle,

      An earlier edit of your post referred to the Falcon X and Falcon XX and possible time lines for either.

      A precursor for development the Falcon X and Falcon XX (the so-called “BFRs” or Big expletive-deleted Rockets) is development of the Merlin 2 engine.

      The Merlin 2 would be in a similar class to Rocketdyne’s F1 engine used on the Saturn Vs of the Apollo era or the Russian RD-170 / RD-171 engine currently used on the Zenit rocket (58 successful flights in 68 launches) in that the Merlin 2 would be LOX/RP-1 fueled and capable of a projected 1.7 million lb. of thrust at sea level and 1.92 million lb. in a vacuum (see here about the Merlin 2).

      The chronological order of rolling out the Merlin 2 would be that the…
      – Falcon 9 is re-engined with one Merlin 2 replacing nine Merlin 1s,
      – Falcon 9 Heavy is re-engined with three Merlin 2s replacing twenty seven Merlin 1s,
      – Falcon X would feature one core with three Merlin 2s,
      – Falcon X Heavy would feature three cores and a total of nine Merlin 2s,
      – Falcon XX would feature one core and a total of six Merlin 2s.

      According to SpaceX McGregor rocket development facility director Tom Markusic, the Merlin 2 “could be qualified in three years [from the time the project stated] for $1 billion” in a statement made at the 2010 AIAA meeting. If there has been progress with the Merlin 2, SpaceX don’t seem to have announced it yet, but it is central to their future plans.

      1. This is an unfair market point that I am sure Musk would have made big scores with unless it is in his interest to keep the war axe buried:

        The other day I read an article that claims ULA gets its Atlas V RD-180 engines (3x per launch) at half the production cost from Russia.

        Is this how political rats smell?

      2. Hi Torbjörn,

        AeroJet cheaply acquired a stockpile of 36 Russian designed, 1960s era, N.D. Kuznetzov NK-33 rocket engines for less than $40 million in the mid 1990s. Today, re-packaged as the AeroJet AJ-26-58, these engines are destined for use on Orbital Science Corp’s Taurus II medium-lift launch vehicle selected for use in NASA’s COTS ISS resupply program alongside SpaceX’s Falcon 9 medium-lift launch vehicle .

        Why the NK-33? This engine achieves the highest thrust-to-weight ratio of any Earth-launched rocket engine, while achieving a very high specific impulse and is by many measures the highest performance LOX/Kerosene rocket engine ever created.

        Now that AeroJet has an exclusive license to produce these engines in the U.S., their intention is to offer an upgraded AJ-26 for use on NASA’s new SLS heavy-lift launch vehicle. If that happens, the NK-33 originally intended for use on a Russian moon rocket, will find eventual use on a U.S. Moon/NEO/Mars rocket.

        Conclusion: Politics aside, you can’t keep a good rocket engine down. 🙂

    4. Offer is only valid for a small elite. Everyone else foots the bill. Give a few the experience of a lifetime today for the special introductory offer of 12 trillion dollars.

      First there is no we footing the bill this is not NASA but Private Enterprise so SpaceX foots the bill with very small grant money from NASA, who really does not want to be out of this Adventure but provide science and technology to assist SpaceX. Second point the bill as now and maybe a little more when it happens is only 400 million as it is being done with a very good management team. Get us there and the brave will go and even more brave will stay. Heck I’d go in a heartbeat cept I’m 53 and if they have no one else to go suit me up. as far as the disclaimer stuff I do not think anybody that goes will care. yeah it’s a big risk, but the return will be far more exciting. If we ever get slammed by a rock all we may have left is that colony and god willing they can come back and start us up again. Amen to the few brave souls who have a vision.

      1. I have not investigated the money foundations here, but I find it difficult to see how a mission to Mars will be financed entirely by private funds. It might be one thing if a launch vehicle is privately financed by a company founded by a billionaire. E. Musk made a killing off of PayPal. As an order of magnitude estimate unmanned missions to orbit that cost on the order of $10^8 might be privately financed. Putting astronauts in orbit probably increase that cost to $10^9, and a lunar program might up that to $10^{10}. A Mars mission will cost around $10^{12}. That is 10,000 times the cost of a single orbital launch as has been done with the Falcon rocket.

        A Martian mission with a crew of 6 will require a number of things. One of those is simply food. An average human eats about 3 pounds of food a day. A Martian mission takes 9 months to reach the planet and about the same for a return. There is also a wait time at Mars of about 6 months to reach the launch window for a Hohman transfer orbit. Given this is a chemically propelled system it will by necessity involve this minimum energy configuration. So that is about a 730 day scenario, which will require 13140 pounds of food. The storage system and materials for that will probably increase that by at least two or three, so this comes to around 15-20 tons. Now you need to have power systems required to sustain the life support for the crew. Further, the crew will need some large “housing.” It is one thing for astronauts to be packed into a capsule on a lunar mission that lasts a week to 10 days, but another for 2 years. This then means there must be a module comparable to one on the ISS that must be hauled along for the trip. There must then be material shielding to protect the crew from solar flares and the charged particle radiation they produce. That could easily double the mass of the spacecraft. If the crew is to land on the planet some large version of the Apollo LEM must be taken along as well. Now consider all the fuel that must be hauled around to land on the planet and to boost the spacecraft back to Earth. Suddenly the required size of the craft is in the multi-100 ton to 1000 ton range.

        This is a far cry from ideas of setting up astronaut bases or “colonies” on Mars. That will increase the cost enormously so that Martian colonization would consume a very significant proportion of the US, indeed world, economy.


      2. The craft that can make the journey is the key, and the best kind of craft will already be a simulacrum of our biosphere and ecology. The first such ship or station will be expensive, but your thinking in terms of spacecraft rather then habitats. My conjecture is we should be thinking more habitat then spacecraft.

        Bigelow and Space X should team up. The old adage, “its not the destination but the journey” comes to mind. If the journey can be done in relative comfort…

        Perhaps you wont need to go (down) to mars. If your comfy ship can give you a sightseeing trip of a lifetime. Especially if it has an orbit that crosses the orbits of both Mars and Earth at least once a year.

        It seems to me that if you can build habitats in space that are self sustaining and provide the average comforts of life in general then there is no advantage to going back down a gravity well. Asteroids or artificial constructs would be much better suited for colonies, they give us the orbital freedom of the solar system and greater control over our environment.

        In the case of Mars, there is little advantage to build habitats on the surface rather then building them in space. Whatever small benefits may be conferred by the surface are outweighed by the energy requirements and risk of traversing the planets gravity well.

        Mars explorers and science outposts will happen, but they would happen much quicker if we had orbital colonies from which to operate, aka spacecraft that can safely and sustainable house people for extended durations. Such orbital colonies are the proverbial ‘roads’ into the solar system.

      3. hey, nice math’s! Yes he made a killing off Paypal, so did Bill Gates and what did he do? Elon Musk said it nicely and smart: We must become a space faring civilization, to survive the future!

      4. I would say that it is best that the outcome of this be determined by what it is that works. It might well be that human beings never step on the surface of Mars or become a multi-planetary or space faring species or civilization. If that is the case we will have to adjust our future accordingly.

        It might be best to consider our situation with regards to where we do live. If you have a test tube with a growth medium bacteria placed in there will double their numbers every 20 minutes. So we place one bacteria in there. Then after a few days let us assume they have multiplied to the point they have used up half of their medium. How long will it take for them to use up the remaining half? 20 minutes is all. This situation mirrors our own. About 8000 years ago the total human population was only about 10 to 20 million. Around that time there came agriculture. Within 4500 years, around the time Moses was supposed to have gotten the Ten Commandments, the human population was over 50 million. By the time of Rome it was 250 million, by the time of Napoleon 1 billion, and just 50 years ago it was 3 billion. Now it is 7 billion. This is exactly the sort of thing seen with the bacteria; it is exponential growth. This is compounded by our rampant use of resources and energy available on this planet, which are largely not renewable. Well assume we devise an idea that we can get around this problem of filling up our “test tube” by sending half of our numbers to another one. How long will it take to fill that one up? 20 minutes. If there are two more tubes after that it will just take another 20 minutes to use them up, and the same subsequently with 4 and then 8 and so forth.

        Our species is a sort of brainy ground ape on an exponential rampage that is out of control. There is no way we can escape our difficulties here by thinking we can move into space. Of course the situation is more complex than this bacteria analogue, but we are now at about the maximum we can expect to grow, and not just in population but in the resources and energy we use to maintain our hyperconsumerist economy and society. There are all of these “peak resource issues,” such as peak oil, which loom on the horizon and will come to dominate the human condition in probably the next 20 years and then after. There is also the entropy aspect to this as well, where the energy we use and the materials we process have resulted in wastes that are perturbing Earth’s systems.

        We are probably more likely to survive into the future if we manage to get some grip on this situation and work hard to establish ourselves in a way which is far less perturbing to the planet we are on. If we relentlessly push in current directions there are good reasons to suspect that when these limits impact the human condition that this will be addressed not in a rational manner, but rather by war.


      5. But:

        “According to Kapitsa (1997),[86] the world population grew between 67,000 BC and 1965 according to the formula:


        N is current population
        T is the current year
        C = (1.86±0.01)•10^11
        T0 = 2007±1
        ? = 42±1″


        “Using linear interpolation of the UNDESA estimates, the world population has been doubled or will double in the following years (with two different starting points). Note how, during the 2nd millennium, each doubling took roughly half as long as the previous doubling, fitting the hyperbolic growth model mentioned above. However, it is unlikely that there will be another doubling in the current century.[87]”


        “Tracing one person’s lineage back in time forms a binary tree of parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on. However, the number of individuals in such an ancestor tree grows exponentially and will eventually become impossibly high. For example, an individual human alive today would, over 30 generations, going back to about the High Middle Ages, have 2^30 or about 1.07 billion ancestors, more than the total world population at the time.[1]

        In reality, an ancestor tree is not a binary tree. Rather, pedigree collapse changes the binary tree to a directed acyclic graph.”


      6. I agree. We need to get a grip on reality and face the facts that far-removed, expensive artificial habitats are not the optimal use of our resources. It’s analogous to the young adult who buys expensive toys while his personal living situation goes down the tubes.

        If we want to better our future and ensure the survival of our civilization, the Earth is our best habitat. We are not managing our own home very well. perhaps we are somewhat complacent because civilization – at least up until l now – particularly in the western world has been largely successful. We are facing a growing laundry that is going unaddressed. Day-to-day survival is not something any of us had to seriously consider. This may change.

        If we ever want to reach a point in our development where we can spread Earth biology onto distant Earth-analogues, we are going to have to get serious about ensuring our project of civilization becomes a long term one.

        There doesn’t seem to be any other species in the works that can do this. We are it.

      7. your numbers are equal parts pure speculation, and complete garbage. I see a big list of complete stabs in the dark. I’ve seen a lot of people with experience in the field give estimates on the costs far, far lower than multiple hundreds of tons. I won’t even get into your grossly incorrect cost numbers. If you want to make a point using numbers, try using real ones.

      8. I think I will stand by my numbers as order of magnitude estimates. GH Bush in 1991 had his space initiative and the cost for each Mars mission was estimated at $.5trillion. A Mars craft would probably have at minimum 100metric tons of mass, which is about the mass of the space shuttle. A Mars craft will be at least that size and mass. And no, we are not expecting a crew to sit still in a cramped capsule for two years. They would go insane, similar to what happens with prolonged cell lockdowns or solitary confinement in prisons.


      9. Sure, those order of magnitude would set an upper limit.

        But that the Space Exploration Initiative cost was the whole program for 20-30 years.

        And we are discussing hardware that is developed, and for ~ 1/10 – 1/100 of NASA costs, depending on if we are discussing launch or project cost.

        I can agree with Terence Clark that in a sense those numbers are not very applicable to the new playfield. And that is the core of Musk’s proposals.

      10. Sure, those order of magnitude would set an upper limit.

        But that the Space Exploration Initiative cost was the whole program for 20-30 years.

        And we are discussing hardware that is developed, and for ~ 1/10 – 1/100 of NASA costs, depending on if we are discussing launch or project cost.

        I can agree with Terence Clark that in a sense those numbers are not very applicable to the new playfield. And that is the core of Musk’s proposals.

      11. Don’t get me wrong. I would love to go to Mars too, but we have to be realistic about our expected returns, or the opportunities Mars will offer biological life.

        I have yet to see any estimate that can get us there for 400 million; good management or not. Most projections that have run through the costs projections place a Martian mission in the realm of billions or trillions – with a colony in the trillions (see LC’s discussion for reasons why a Martian trip is expensive).

    5. The way it is set up now, there can be mass tourism from suborbitals up to extended orbits. All the needed infrastructure and economy of scale is converging on that.

      But the rest is “take it or leave it”. A freshly added problem I just saw the other day is that even low gravity conditions seems hazardous to health, as I remember it. Long term living on the Moon, and perhaps Mars, can be a problem. But it is early days.

      If we can get there, the rest is relatively easy. (Not the dust, obviously. It will be a dozy.) Caving will solve most of the problems. I am sure a biosphere even at todays lousy ~ 70 % closure can be maintained with access to massive amounts of indigenous water and CO2.

      Minor correction: The Deep Space Internet infrastructure is soon in place. And Mars will obviously have a faster “in planet” internet & cell net by satellites; how else do you communicate these days anyway?

      1. I did consider caving. There are probably ways to mitigate risks and lower overall costs (inflatable habitats blown into lava tunnels, etc.). Still, I’m unconvinced this makes more sense then staying out of Mar’s gravity well. Perhaps companies like SpaceX can find ways of utilizing resources in space. There might be a need for manned service missions to theses celestial bodies. Not glamourous, but seems to make more financial sense.

        Thanks for the link!

    6. Thank the lord the founding fathers didn’t share your views sir…otherwise you’d be still sat here in Tottenham with me…:)

    7. Your clever post brought great humor to my early morning. Well done, “Uncle Fred”! ( Not that I am against man’s exploratory quest beyond his known horizons. )

      1. Glad I could be of service!

        I’m not against space exploration either. I respect and admire people like Elon Musk. I just don’t see the means justifying the ends with manned Martian exploration.

    8. Dear Uncle_Fred;-) Why so negative? We will master the challenges ahead! Just remember, if you’re old enough, APOLLO!!! The technologies existing THEN were, well, inadequate to say the least. STILL, we made it… not just once.
      YES, there are challenges and dangers. I am happy however, that there is a man, Elon Musk, who has already done things which recently could only be accomplished by NATIONS!
      He is a visionary like von Braun and many other people, thinking outside the box, a creative mind. May the force be with him and SpaceX.

    9. Uncle_Fred – Really??? If we are ever going to live on another planet where else do you propose? Like Little Red Riding Hood, The Gas planets aren’t a good place to lay a foundation down. Venus and Mercury are just a tad too hot. Mars isn’t perfect but it is all there is. Anything short of an anti-matter engine and we’re not going to visit another star for thousands of years.

      You may ask why even bother? Well why did humans built the pyramids? The great wall? Why did we climb Everest? Or travel to the poles? I don’t know but I have a feeling the future history books in 1000 or 10,000 years will not be talking about the silly humans who first walked on Mars as being silly leftist elite. Especially if we find life on Mars. Your points are valid but so are mine.

      Where did you get this price tag of 12 Trillion Dollars BTW? Check out Dr. Zubrin Mars Direct plans from of the Mars Society. He addressed what I believe was a Bush Sr. era proposal that had a price tag of something like trillions of dollars. Zurbin looked at the going to Mars only using our existing technology.

      For example you item #7 Carbon Dioxide. Note the “Oxide: part. Zubrin proposes that there is plenty of breath able oxygen available from the CO2 and oxygen if for rocket fuel if you’re smart about. If you bring some hydrogen with you guess what you can make when you mix the oxygen with it, water. A rather simple machine on the surface of Mars could produce oxygen on the surface of Mars. This means we don’t have to carry all of it to Mars. You fill the tanks up with liquid Oxygen that was made on Mars.

      I do think Zubrin rounds things up a bit too aggressively but he sure isn’t approaching it like an established space state congress person would which is get as much money for my state as possible. Ask any space state congress person if there were 2 plans on the table that accomplished the same functional objectives. Ask them what plan they would endorse: Plan A – $25 billion for their state. Plan B – $500 million for their state. You know they would find a way to justify the more expensive plan. Now ask a business owner like Elon Musk the same question! Musk would try to find ways to get the $500 million down to $300 million.

      Huston we have a problem, and do you see the source of our problems?

      1. @PhillyJimi,

        I liked the passion of your argument quite a lot. However…

        You may ask why even bother? Well why did humans built the pyramids? The great wall? Why did we climb Everest? Or travel to the poles?

        Some folks surmise the pyramids and the tells built in the desert were built to act as life saving areas when catastrophic flooding would occur on a periodic time table -15 yr in – 15 yr out, and of course with stable periods of around 12 yrs during each of the ins and outs.

        The great wall, well some have told us it was to act as a “choke point for hordes of outsiders so that other outsiders could fight them” thus reducing the general numbers of outsiders. Others would say “it was to repel all outsiders”. It was not built because the reigning royalty had more people than work and thus this effort was enacted as a ‘make work project’, for generations of workers.

        Climbing Everest or K2 for that matter, or the several named Alps in Europe – well, most tell us this was because they were there. Others say the passes (in some of the alps) was not safe enough politically or territorially for those few who were un-welcomed by those same poly/tery types.

        The travel to the poles. Humm, ya got me there, I thought that was mostly because it was a shorter distance across the poles at times than the routes used at other latitudes but that’s just me, I have any attitude. The folks undertaking these many types of endeavors share something I am sure. I do not know that commercial space travel will share any of those urges.

        The heavier than air passages and long distance balloon flights paved the way to everyday use by millions, much as car racing paves commercial improvements enjoyed by millions. This might be the parallel you wish to draw, rather than one fueled by non-commercial interests.

        I don’t know but I have a feeling the future history books in 1000 or 10,000 years will not be talking about the silly humans who first walked on Mars as being silly leftist elite.

        You did not catch the many references to left being used by the author of the article for the term lift… sigh. Ok, I am sorry to spoil the pun for you.

        Where did you get this price tag of 12 Trillion Dollars BTW?

        I do not think Uncle_Fred said 12 trillion units of any currency, let me check… humm, I see this I have yet to see any estimate that can get us there for 400 million; good management or not. Most projections that have run through the costs place a Martian mission in the realm of billions or trillions – with a colony in the trillions (see LC’s discussion for reasons why a Martian trip is expensive). a fail on your part I think.

        Huston we have a problem, and do you see the source of our problems?

        The misquoted line correctly reads “Houston, we’ve had a problem” not “Houston, we have a problem”.

        The remainder of your rant I have not worked on at this time and I may not rebut that content ever. This is not really a rebuttal in any case. This is just more of me thinking through what you say vs what I thought others say is true.


  2. I caught a couple of mistakes. The “heavy-left Falcon 9 rockets” in the sixth paragraph should be heavy lift. The last sentence is “thrown down th gauntlet,”

    I must confess that something seems amiss here. While this heavy lift vehicle is large, it seems implausible that a crew could really survive the small cabin environment of this craft for the two year journey to Mars and back. There is also the question of provisions, which would have to be considerable.


    1. Heavy lifters could just bring enough stuff to EO to build the Mars vehicle, and YES, the crew should be larger, maybe 10, consisting of men and women. The vehicle going to Mars should use the most powerful engines available.

    2. Zubrin et al pulls Bigelow type of tents out of the storage space of CEVs.
      Dragon has, I believe, even more cargo capacity. One stores the journey cabin, the other the perishables, and with a tether they spin them for pseudo-gravity.

      But Zubrin is the crazy one. I expect Musk to be more down-to-Mars.

  3. FYI. Elon fielded audience questions on potential Mars missions at a Q & A session during the recent AIAA meeting. This has been posted here on YouTube. Elon is shaping-up to be a Steve Jobs of NewSpace.

    1. Totally agree! Elon Musk is the von Braun of today, plus he seems to be a good manager and businessman! This man may be for space what Jobs is for computers…
      Musk draws attention, because he is visionary and bold. We’ll hear a lot from and about him in the future I hope. may the force be with him;-).
      Gee, how I would go to Mars in a heartbeat if I only had a chance. Our engineers and scientists will solve the problems based on ideas from a vast resource around the world, us!!!

  4. Yet another error in this article — the Falcon 9 is really a medium-to-heavy lift vehicle & carries ~ 10 metric tons to LEO. The Falcon Heavy will be a heavy lift vehicle, and will carry about 53 metric tons to LEO. The Falcon X and Falcon XX (and their multi-core ‘heavy’ variants) are still conjectural, awaiting development of the Merlin 2 engine. These launchers will be capable of lifting anywhere from 38 to 140 metric tons or more to LEO in a single launch.

  5. They’ve launched two Falcon 9s into orbit and they’re planning for Mars. {snort}

    Then there’s the problem of landing on Mars, which I am given to understand is that there’s too much atmosphere for some purposes and not enough for others.

    1. They have launched 5 Falcon-1, 2 Falcon-9 and 1 Dragon. They are planning for all sorts of things. If some comes out right, who cares about the rest?

    2. what about a glider that could survive speeds in order of thousands of kilometers per hour? surely not possible in earth’s atmosphere, but what about mars? who said you have to slow down from orbit to landing in few minutes like shuttle (R.I.P.)? the slow-down glide could last multiple hours or days…

      1. “what about a glider that could survive speeds in order of thousands of kilometers per hour?” Please see . This is a case where the atmosphere is not dense enough: you have seconds to get from slowing down from high Mach before you crater. “You’d still be going at Mach 2 or 3 fairly close to the ground.” To use a glider, I gather you’d have to first land enough equipment and probably people to make a runway that could take a Mach 2 landing.

  6. Musk has thrown down the gauntlet. His IAAA speech in the youtube mentioned in the thread reveals that SpaceX economical plan revolves around supporting Mars colonization to achieve sufficient turn around. Ad astra or go bust.

    While I can share the general sentiment, I am not sure I share Musk motivations. I have said it ad nauseam already: we are evolving anyway, and the risk for a specific species isn’t external extinction pressures. Musk dismiss mining, but it is relevant for exploitation for, say, his colonies.

    Historically the economy in colonization has naturally been precisely exploitation before independence, and I doubt that can change. “Inverse gain” exploitation in the form of population relief will not work. I can settle for mass tourism as the potential staple industry though.

    The short term need for SpaceX then becomes reusability. Musk makes a good case, if now fuel is ~ 1 % of the recycling launch cost. That will cut down on the Falcon Heavy payload, the relevant LEO mass will be somewhat under the current ~ 50 Mg. (As many noted, the article seems to describe a Falcon-9 LEO payload, and under spec to boot.) But Musk has a plan that ‘works on paper’ for at least stage 1, restart engines and lower reentrance speed.

    I like how Musk breaks down the problem: ‘we have already demonstrated the more difficult “stage 3” Dragon reuse, repack the chutes and she was ready to go’. Continuous improvement wasn’t a Falcon-1 winner, but as long as there is no manned launches it is his risk.

    Which brings us to the new staged version of the Merlin engine. To boost efficiency, they preburn fuel to provide turbine pump thrust, and add to the exhaust instead of dumping unburnt fuel in a simpler engine. The few percent fuel save adds up in a launcher.

    However, someone said on another thread that the Shuttle engines were like that. And that the way they learned how to control the engine start was by a long series of trial-and-explosions.

    The medium term need becomes expanded market. Trying to capture the new high mass spy market of the US military seems natural, and Musk ingeniously positions Dragon as the “hardened military satellite shell” it can be. That launcher + shell combo may be a winner.

    And the long term need is the manned Dragon, i.e. the launch abort system. As for the Falcon Heavy, Musk has no problem shunting fuel to maximize efficiency. ‘If you abort, you won’t need maneuvering fuel.’

    Finally Musk acknowledge the Mars landing problem. Encouraging, and indeed there may be ‘many ways to skin that cat.’

    This will be Musk’s new Mar(s)aton.

    1. While I am not a scientist, I am a fan of TL;-) Why criticize Musk, when you can contribute? I am sure Musk wants smart people… the way to succeed in business is to employ the smartest, the most creative and innovative minds, and manage this team to outdo any individual. The leader always is the one with the vision, Torbjörn! Steve Jobs is probably the best example in modern times.
      Please enlighten me further. Thank you for all your great contribution here.

    1. Terraforming isn’t going to work on Mars unless we can first find a way to create an artificial magnetic field around the entire planet and create a moon sized to stabilize the planet’s rotation. Specifically, without the magnetic field, the solar winds will just strip away any beneficial atmosphere we manage to create and, more significantly, cosmic rays and other harmful particles will directly impact the planet (and any colonists) instead of being diverted the way it is here on Earth.

      As far as sending microbes to begin the terraforming process, I seriouslt doubt anyone would sign off on such a plan since we are still attempting to determine if there is or has been any Mars-originating life currently present. Also, with the probes/vehicles we have already sent to Mars, it is very possible that the planet has already been contaminated with Earth-originating microbes.

      1. Mike, those truisms need to be buried. Atmosphere erosion by the solar wind at present is minuscule – it was only significant when the Sun was young and the wind was 1000 times stronger. As for the Moon stabilizer thingie, we’re talking about multi-thousand year timescales for significant inclination changes – plenty enough time to prepare.

        As for radiation protection, most of the Solar wind is deflected by the planetary ionospheres around present day Mars and Venus. Flares will cause some radiation from the Sun to get through, but a thicker atmosphere will stop that automatically. On Earth we are protected by our atmosphere, not our magnetosphere.

      2. The magnetosphere does protect us. The atmosphere of a planet without a magnetic field is attenuated by solar induced charged particle bombardment over hundreds of millions of years. Solar wind took out the Martian atmosphere this way, where the smaller Martian gravity permitted this to happen at an accelerated rate. If the Earth did not have a magnetic field the atmosphere would be significantly less, maybe a half or a quarter of its current sea level pressure.


      3. Did I say otherwise? The present day erosion has been confused with the higher levels of the past. Extra atmosphere on Mars now would last aeons because the current rate is so low – the solar wind isn’t an impediment to terraforming now.

      4. The ideal of installing a magnetic field for Mars is a bit dubious, but I agree with qraal that atmospheric loss isn’t a big barrier. Presumably, we would want to find a way to create atmosphere at such rates as to dwarf its gradual loss.

  7. There is one needed ingredient to engage in manned interplanetary exploration. It requires a serious propulsion system. The specific impulse (ISP) of chemical rockets has an upper bound of about 550 seconds. Specific impulse s = v/g for v the velocity of the reaction mass shot out the back of the rocket and g = 9.8m/s^2, one Earth gravity at the surface. A nuclear solid core reactor engine has s = 1000sec, a liquid core s = 2000sec and the gas core s = 5000 sec. A gas core reactor borders on being a controlled nuclear bomb, so that is a bit dicey. The VASIMR propulsion system has an ISP up to s = 10,000 sec. A nuclear powered VASIMR craft is then a likely choice for interplanetary missions. This would allow a craft to reach Mars at up to 1000km/sec, instead of an average of less than 10km/sec. Then you get to Mars in a few weeks instead of a plodding Hohman transfer orbit time of 9 months.

    A small capsule spacecraft with 3 to 6 crew members plodding off to Mars strikes me as a sort of space-coffin. If you include a living module it requires the use of far more fuel, which increases the mass of the ship far beyond just the mass of the module and consequently the over all costs. The problem we face is similar to some Greek who might have wanted to head out across the Atlantic Ocean in a trireme, a ship not seaworthy enough for that voyage.


    1. A VASIMR is only as effective as the power source to energize its jets. Unfortunately for all fans of plasma rockets, we don’t have power sources light enough to do the job sufficiently well to get to Mars in mere weeks. The best a VASIMR can do isn’t much different to what a chemical mission can do, as both require aerobraking at Mars and over 100 days transit time. A free-return orbit to Mars is the best option using either system, but we don’t have to invent a power source for the chemical rockets to do the mission.

      1. The optimal power source for a plasma propulsion system is nuclear, or maybe further into the future fusion, power. Nuclear power in space has its detractions from a health and safety perspective, but I think these issues can be hammered out. The space nuclear power systems which have been deployed, SNAP etc, are pretty small affairs. Without propulsion systems that have much larger ISPs, interplanetary exploration of space with astronauts is ill-advised, very expensive and extremely risky.


      2. But those are VASIMRs own figures I believe.

        Current reactors can _maybe_ be pushed to a factor 2 from what is needed to take VASIMR from a Hohmann type trajectory to a faster.

        I think VASIMR may be sound, but again Mars seems to be the “too little, too much” planet. For Jupiter, VASIMR will probably deliver sooner.

  8. CORRECTION: 12-15 tons to orbit is wrong. This is more like what we can expect from the single core Falcon 9 after the new turbo pump upgrade. The Falcon 9 Heavy should be able to put 58.5 tons (117,000 lbs) to orbit. This will make the Falcon Heavy the worlds biggest rocket in production.

    1. The turbo pump upgrade, if successful, will help. The need to make the stages reusable will not. I would expect the future Falcon Heavy to lift ~ 50 tons.

  9. Everyone on this thread seems to be discussing the capability of Mars mission in terms of today’s science and technology, whether it comes down to propulsion, life support, communications, etc.

    While this is quaint, it is ultimately a futile discussion. Technology will continue to improve exponentially and in ways that are plainly inconceivable at this point in time. In 20 years, you will look back on this point in time and say (to your grandchildren, perhaps), “I still remember the days before we discovered ‘x’, and we thought it was impossible that a human being would survive the trip to Mars.”

    This has been the story of history up to this point in time, and it will continue to define it in the eras to come.

  10. F Heavy is estimating 53+ tons to LEO, not 12-15. SpaceX has said it should be able to put in the neighborhood of 12 tons on the surface of Mars, however.

  11. The longest anyone has been away from Earth is less than 2 weeks (3 days to the moon, 3 days back, + time on the moon). It may not be possible psychologically to be away much longer – we just don’t know. It’s not the same as low earth orbit, with the planet constantly looming out the window, hours away from emergency touchdown if needed (the shuttle took 1hr, 5min from deorbit burn to landing). To get to Mars and back in a matter of weeks would take a nuclear engined rocket with about 1000 fold increase in energy. You would need a bigger ship. You would need to get that ship going 10’s of times faster (the energy needed increases by the square of the speed). You would need almost as much energy to slow down when arriving at Mars. The trip back home would also take large amounts of energy to get up to speed and slow down, though not as much because the ship would be much lighter. I don’t hear Elon Musk or anyone talking about the development of such nuclear engines. This goes for missions to visit Asteroids too. We’re not going anywhere until we develop nuclear propulsion with orders of magnitude increases in fuel energy density.

  12. That being said, once we have a presence on Mars, then the development can begin on sending more cargo or quicker flights. VASIMR is perfect for that role, once we can power it.

    1. If VASIMR works, it will definitely be good as we get farther out. And even if it only achieves parity on Mars, it should be more robust and perhaps permit refueling in most places. (Argon is “easily” liquified from gasified media.)

  13. Well if you’re just going to appeal to technological miracles, then what’s the point in discussing anything at all in regards to the future of Mars?

    SpaceX might as well not bother developing a rocket because who knows, maybe tomorrow someone have invented a teleporter and we can just go to Mars in an instant.

    1. Who said anything about needing miracles? I’m just addressing the pessimistic attitudes of some of the other posts, who seem to assume that what we have now in terms of technological capacity is all we’ll ever be able to achieve.

    2. Ok, fair point.

      But I would say that it’s the safest possible assumption to make, to assume we’ll never develop new technologies. Incredibly unlikely, I’ll agree, but if we’re going to discuss how to do something, it makes sense to discuss it in terms of proven technologies rather than speculative ones.

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