The First SpaceX BFR Should Make Orbital Launches by 2020

Elon Musk has a reputation for pushing the envelop and making bold declarations. In 2002, he founded SpaceX with the intention of making spaceflight affordable through entirely reusable rockets. In April of 2014, his company achieved success with the first successful recovery of a Falcon 9 first stage. And in February of this year, his company successfully launched its Falcon Heavy and managed to recover two of the three boosters.

But above and beyond Musk’s commitment to reusability, there is also his longer-term plans to use his proposed Big Falcon Rocket (BFR) to explore and colonize Mars. The topic of when this rocket will be ready to conduct launches was the subject of a recent interview between Musk and famed director Jonathon Nolan, which took place at the 2018 South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.

During the interview, Musk reiterated his earlier statements that test flights would begin in 2019 and an orbital launch of the full BFR and Big Falcon Spaceship (BFS) would take place by 2020. And while this might seem like a very optimistic prediction (something Musk is famous for), this timeline does not seem entirely implausible given his company’s work on the necessary components and their success with reusability.

As Musk emphasized during the course of the interview:

“People have told me that my timelines have historically been optimistic. So I am trying to re-calibrate to some degree here. But I can tell what I know currently is the case is that we are building the first ship, the first Mars or interplanetary ship, right now, and I think we’ll probably be able to do short flights, short sort of up-and-down flights probably in the first half of next year.”

To break it down, the BFR – formerly known as the Interplanetary Transport System – consists of a massive first stage booster and an equally massive second stage/spaceship (the BFS). Once the spacecraft is launched, the second stage would detach and use its thrusters to assume a parking orbit around Earth. The first stage would then guide itself back to its launchpad, take on a propellant tanker, and return to orbit.

The propellant tanker would then attach to the BFS and refuel it and return to Earth with the first stage. The BFS would then fire its thrusters again and make the journey to Mars with its payload and crew. While much of the technology and concepts have been tested and developed through the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, the BFR is distinct from anything else SpaceX has built in a number of ways.

For one, it will be much larger (hence the nickname, Big F—— Rocket), have significantly more thrust, and be able  carry a much larger payload. The BFR’s specifications were the subject of a presentation Musk made at the 68th International Astronautical Congress on September 28th, 2017, in Adelaide, Australia. Titled “Making Life  Interplanetary“, his presentation outlined his vision for colonizing Mars and presented an overview of the ship that would make it happen.

According to Musk, the BFR will measure 106 meters (348 ft) in height and 9 meters (30 ft) in diameter. It will carry 110 tons (~99,700 kg) of propellant and will have an ascent mass of 150 tons (~136,000 kg) and a return mass of 50 tons (~45,300 kg). All told, it will be able to deliver a payload of 150,000 kg (330,000 lb) to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) – almost two and a half times the payload of the Falcon Heavy (63,800 kg; 140,660 lb)

“This a very big booster and ship,” said Musk. “The liftoff thrust of this would be about twice that of a Saturn V (the rockets that sent the Apollo astronauts to the Moon). So it’s capable of doing 150 metric tons to orbit and be fully reusable. So the expendable payload is about double that number.”

In addition, the BFR uses a new type of propellant and tanker system in order to refuel the spacecraft once its in orbit. This goes beyond what SpaceX is used to, but the company’s history of retrieving rockets and reusing them means the technical challenges this poses are not entirely new. By far, the greatest challenges will be those of cost and safety, since this will be only the third reusable second stage spacecraft in history.

The other two consist of the NASA Space Shuttles, which were officially retired in 2011, and the Soviet/Russian version of the Space Shuttle known as the Buran spacecraft. While the Buran only flew once (an uncrewed flight that took place in 1988), it remains the only Russian reusable spacecraft to have even been built or flown.

Where costs are concerned, the Space Shuttle Program provides a pretty good glimpse into what Musk and his company will be facing in the years ahead. According to estimates compiled in 2010 (shortly before the Space Shuttle was retired), the program cost a total of about $ 210 billion USD. Much of these costs were due to maintenance between launches and the costs of propellant, which will need to be kept low for the BFR to be economically viable.

Addressing the question of costs, Musk once again stressed how reusability will be key:

“What’s amazing about this ship, assuming we can make full and rapid reusability work, is that we can reduce the marginal cost per flight dramatically, by orders of magnitude compared to where it is today. This question of reusability is so fundamental to rocketry, it is the fundamental breakthrough that’s needed.”

As an example, Musk compared the cost of renting a 747 with full cargo (about $500,000) and flying from California to Australia to buying a single engine turboprop plane, – which would run about $1.5 million and cannot even reach Australia. In short, the BFR relies on the principle that it costs less for an entirely reusable large spaceship to make a long trip that it does to launch a single rocket on a short trip that would never return.

“A BFR flight will actually cost less than our Falcon 1 flight did,” he said. “That was about a 5 or 6 million dollar marginal cost per flight. We’re confident the BFR will be less than that. That’s profound, and that is what will enable the integration of a permanent base on the Moon and a city on Mars. And that’s the equivalent of like the Union Pacific Railroad, or having ships that can quickly cross the oceans.”

Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) on the left, and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (right). Credit: NASA

Beyond manufacturing and refurbishing costs, the BFR will also need to have an impeccable safety record if SpaceX is to have a hope of making money from it. In this respect, SpaceX hopes to follow a development process similar to what they did with the Falcon 9. Before conducting full launch tests to see if the first stage of the rocket could safely make it to orbit and then be retrieved, the company conducted short hop tests using their “Grasshopper” rocket.

According to the timeline Musk offered at the 2018 SXSW, the company will be using the spaceship that is currently being built to conduct suborbital tests as soon as 2019. Orbital launches, which may include both the booster and the spaceship, are expected to occur by 2020. At present, Musk’s earlier statements that the first flight of the BFR would take place by 2022 and the first crewed flight by 2024 still appear to be on.

For comparison, the Space Launch System (SLS) – which is NASA’s proposed means of getting to Mars – is scheduled to conduct its first launch in 2019 as well. Known as Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), this launch will involve sending an uncrewed Orion capsule on a trip around the Moon. EM-2, in which a crewed Orion capsule will delver the first module of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G, formerly the Deep Space Gateway) to lunar orbit, will take place in 2022.

The ensuing missions will consist of more modules being delivered to lunar orbit to complete construction of the LOP-G, as well as the Deep Space Transport (DST). The first interplanetary trip to Mars, Exploration Mission 11 (EM-11), won’t to take place until 2033. So if Musk’s timelines are to be believed, SpaceX will be beating NASA to Mars, both in terms of uncrewed and crewed missions.

As for who will be enabling a permanent stay on both the Moon and Mars, that remains to be seen. And as Musk emphasized, he hopes that by showing that creating an interplanetary spaceship is possible, agencies and organizations all over the planet will mobilize to do the same. For all we know, the creation of the BFR could enable the creation of an entire fleet of Interplanetary Transport Systems.

The South by Southwest Conference began on Friday, March 9th and will continue until Sunday, March 18th. And be sure to check out the video of the interview below:

Further Reading: Testlarati, SXSW

Elon Musk Reveals Further Plans to Colonize Mars and Make Aerospace Transit a Reality

For years, Elon Musk and the company he founded to reduce the associated costs of space exploration (SpaceX) have been leading the charge in the development of private spaceflight. Beyond capturing the attention of the world with reusable rocket tests and the development of next-generation space vehicles, Musk has also garnered a lot of attention for his long-term plans.

These plans were the subject of a presentation made on Friday, September 29th, during the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) – which ran from September 25th to September 29th in Adelaide, Australia. During the course of the presentation, Musk detailed his plans to send cargo ships to Mars by 2022, and to conduct regular aerospace trips between major cities here on Earth.

The presentation was aptly titled “Making Life Interplanetary”, and featured the latest news about SpaceX’s ongoing attempts to build the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). This massive rocket, which also goes by the code name BFR (Big F***ing Rocket), has been the centerpiece of Musk’s long-term goal to send colonists and cargo to Mars in the coming decade.

Artist’s impression of the ITS (BFR) conducting a service run to the ISS. Credit: SpaceX

As Musk indicated, the ability to conduct regular trips to Mars and the creation of an aerospace transportation system are inextricably linked. Whereas the colonization of Mars involves creating a fleet of massive rockets, regular aerospace trips would be intended to finance their construction. In short, a downsized version of the ITS could be used to ferry people to and from locations on Earth from Low Earth Orbit (LEO).

As Musk explained to a packed auditorium at a global gathering of space experts in Adelaide:

“The most important thing… is that I think we have figured out how to pay for (BFR). Which is to have a smaller vehicle, it’s still pretty big, but one that can… do everything that’s needed in the greater Earth orbit activity.”

Musk also indicated that his company is developing the components for the ITS (BFR), and that construction of the first ship will start in six to nine months. He expressed confidence that at least two ships could be completed in about five years; at which point, cargo runs to Mars would commence. By 2022, he claimed, these ships would be sent to the Red Planet for the purpose of finding the best source of water.

This water source would be vital in the manufacture of rocket fuel for future return missions. It could also serve as a source of drinking water for the colony Musk has in mind. Other objectives would include the transportation of key infrastructure to Mars – which means bringing the necessary equipment to provide power, life-support, and mining operations for future missions.

Artists’ impression of Moon Base Alpha, SpaceX’s envisioned lunar outpost, which would be supplied with the BFR. Credit: SpaceX

This would be followed by four ships making the journey by 2024, which would be responsible for transporting people, equipment and supplies to Mars. Naturally, the price tag for these rockets and the trips they would make would be rather staggering. However, Musk also outlined a range of activities that the ITS would be engaged in that would finance the Mars missions.

These would include launching satellites, servicing the International Space Station, and conducting missions to the lunar surface. Beyond this, Musk also explained how the rockets (or a smaller version of them) could provide aerospace flights between major cities in record time. According to his calculations, he claimed that such flights could ferry customers between Bangkok and Dubai in just 27 minutes, or between Tokyo and Delhi in 30 minutes.

As Musk explained, this form of transportation through LEO would remove a lot of the hassles associated with regular flighst:

“Once you are out of the atmosphere, it would be as smooth as silk, no turbulence, nothing. There’s no weather… and you can get to most long-distance places in less than half-an-hour. If we are building this thing to go to the Moon and Mars, then why not go to other places on Earth as well.”

For those who recall Musk’s 2013 proposal for a “fifth mode of transportation“, there are certainly some echoes from his Hyperloop pitch. An means of transit that benefits from reduced air resistance, reduced noise, and can get people to their destinations in very little time. Of course, as with all aerospace ventures, there is the issue of how much an individual ticket would cost. But for those who could afford it, the convenience and novelty alone would be well worth price!

Animation showing the proposed growth of a colony on Mars (click to see animation). Credit: SpaceX

Beyond the questions of cost, there are also the numerous engineering and technical challenges that Musk’s latest proposals would entail. Because of the nature of Earth and Mars’ respective orbits, trips between Earth and Mars can only take place once every two years. In addition, it would take several months to reach Mars, during which time, the ITS and its crew would be exposed to significant amounts of radiation.

Such concerns are not new, and are also a major part of NASA’s proposed crewed missions to Mars – which are scheduled to begin in the 2030s. And taking on big challenges is hardly new to Musk, either. Whether it was the development reusable rockets, electric cars, or the Hyperloop, Musk is known for his ability to find solutions to problems and inspire others to do so as well.

The week-long annual International Astronautical Congress, which concluded on Friday, saw space agencies and private companies from around the world share their plans for the future of space exploration. These included the recent agreement between the Russian space agency (Roscosmo) and NASA to develop the first space station in cislunar orbit that would facilitate missions to Mars and beyond (aka. the Deep Space Gateway).

Other plans included missions to the Moon and Mars in the coming decades. Between NASA, the ESA, Roscosmos, the IRSO, the CNSA, and JAXA, multiple orbiters, rovers and even crewed missions are expected to take to space in the 2020s and 2030s. After decades of being in a serious lull, it seems that we are embarking on a renewed era of space exploration.

In the meantime, check out Musk’s video of his proposal to use ITS rockets to conduct aerospace trips around the world:

And be sure to check out the live coverage of the IAC event:

Further Reading: AFP

Elon Musk Details His Vision for a Human Civilization on Mars

Elon Musk has never been one to keep his long-term plans to himself. Beyond the development of reusable rockets, electric cars, and revolutionizing solar power, he has also been quite vocal about establishing a colony on Mars within his lifetime. The goal here is nothing less than ensuring the survival of the human race by creating a “backup location”, and calls for some serious planning and architecture.

These and other aspects of Musk’s proposed mission to Mars were outlined in an essay titled “Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species“, which was published in the June 2017 issue of the journal New Space. The paper is a summary of the presentation he made at the 67th Annual Meeting of the International Astronautical Congress, which took place from September 26th–30th, 2016, in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The paper was produced by Scott Hubbard, a consulting professor at Stanford University and the Editor-in-Chief of NewSpace, and includes all the material and slides from Musk’s original presentation. Contained within are Musk’s thoughts on how the colonization of Mars could be accomplished in this century and what issues would need to be addressed.

Elon Musk revealing his Mars Plans at the 67th annual meetings of the IAC. Credit: SpaceX/IAC

These include the costs of sending people and payloads to Mars, the technical details of the rocket and vehicle that would be making the trip, and possible cost breakdowns and timelines. But of course, he also addresses the key philosophical questions – “Why go?” and “Why Mars?”

Addressing this first question is one of the most important aspects of space exploration. Remember John F. Kennedy’s iconic “We Choose to go to the Moon” speech? Far from just being a declaration of intent, this speech was a justification by the Kennedy administration for all the time, energy, and money it was committing to the Apollo program. As such, Kennedy’s speech stressed above all else why the goal was a noble undertaking.

In looking to Mars, Musk struck a similar tone, emphasizing survival and humanity’s need to expand into space. As he stated:

“I think there are really two fundamental paths. History is going to bifurcate along two directions. One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event. I do not have an immediate doomsday prophecy, but eventually, history suggests, there will be some doomsday event. The alternative is to become a space-bearing civilization and a multi-planetary species, which I hope you would agree is the right way to go.”

As for what makes Mars the natural choice, that was a bit more of a tough sell. Granted, Mars has a lot of similarities with Earth – hence why it is often called “Earth’s Twin” – which makes it a tantalizing target for scientific research. But it also has some rather stark differences that make long-term stays on the surface seem less than appealing. So why would it be the natural choice?

Artist’s rendition of a passenger aboard the ITS looking down on Mars. Credit: SpaceX

As Musk explains, proximity has a lot to do with it. Sure, Venus is closer to Earth, getting as close as 41 million km (25,476,219 mi), compared to 56 million km (3,4796,787 mi) with Mars. But Venus’ hostile environment is well-documented, and include a super-dense atmosphere, temperatures hot enough to melt lead and sulfuric acid rain! Mercury is too hot and airless, and the Jovian moons are very far.

This leaves us with just two options for the near-future, as far as Musk is concerned. One is the Moon, which is likely to have a permanent settlement on it in the coming years. In fact, between the ESA, NASA, Roscosmos, and the Chines National Space Administration, there is no shortage of plans to build a lunar outpost, which will serve as a successor to the ISS.

But compared to Mars, it is less resource rich, has no atmosphere, and represents a major transition as far as gravity (0.165 g compared to 0.376 g) and length of day (28 days vs. 24.5 hours) are concerned. Herein lies the greatest reason to go to Mars, which is the fact that our options are limited and Mars is the most Earth-like of all the bodies that are currently accessible to us.

What’s more, Musk makes allowances for the fact that colonists could start kick-starting the terraforming process, to make it even more Earth-like over time. As he states (bold added for emphasis):

“In fact, we now believe that early Mars was a lot like Earth. In effect, if we could warm Mars up, we would once again have a thick atmosphere and liquid oceans. Mars is about half as far again from the Sun as Earth is, so it still has decent sunlight. It is a little cold, but we can warm it up. It has a very helpful atmosphere, which, being primarily CO2 with some nitrogen and argon and a few other trace elements, means that we can grow plants on Mars just by compressing the atmosphere.

“It would be quite fun to be on Mars because you would have gravity that is about 37% of that of Earth, so you would be able to lift heavy things and bound around. Furthermore, the day is remarkably close to that of Earth. We just need to change the populations because currently we have seven billion people on Earth and none on Mars.”

Naturally, no mission can be expected to happen without the all-important vehicle. To this end, Musk used the annual IAC meeting to unveil his company’s plans for the Interplanetary Transport System. An updated version of the Mars Colonial Transporter (which Musk began talking about in 2012), the ITS will consist of two main components – a reusable rocket booster and the Interplanetary Spaceship.

The process for getting to Mars with these components involves a few steps. First, the rocket booster and spaceship take off together and the spaceship is delivered into orbit. Next, while the spaceship assumes a parking orbit, the booster returns to Earth to be reloaded with the tanker craft. This vehicle is the same design as the spaceship, but contains propellant tanks instead of cargo areas.

The tanker is then launched into orbit with the booster, where it will rendezvous with the spaceship and refuel it for the journey to Mars. Overall, the propellant tanker will go up anywhere from three to five times to fill the tanks of the spacecraft while it is in orbit. Musk estimates that the turnaround time between the spacecraft launch and the booster retrieval could eventually be as low as 20 minutes.

This process (if Musk gets its way) would expand to include multiple spaceships making the journey to and from Mars every 26 months (when Mars and Earth are closest together):

“You would ultimately have upwards of 1,000 or more spaceships waiting in orbit. Hence, the Mars Colonial fleet would depart en masse. It makes sense to load the spaceships into orbit because you have got 2 years to do so, and then you can make frequent use of the booster and the tanker to get really heavy reuse out of those. With the spaceship, you get less reuse because you have to consider how long it is going to last—maybe 30 years, which might be perhaps 12–15 flights of the spaceship at most.”

In terms of the rocket’s structure, it would consist of an advanced carbon fiber exterior surrounding fuel tanks, which would rely on an autogenous pressurization system. This involves the fuel and oxygen being gasified through heat exchanges in the engine, which would then be used to pressurize the tanks. This is a much simpler system than what is currently being used for the Falcon 9 rocket.

The booster would use 42 Raptor engines arranged in concentric rings to generate thrust. With 21 engines in the outer ring, 14 in the inner ring, and seven in a center cluster, the booster would have an estimated lift-off thrust of 11,793 metric tons (13,000 tons) – 128 MegaNewtons – and a vacuum thrust of 12,714 metric tons (14,015 tons), or 138 MN. This would make it the first spacecraft where the rocket performance bar exceeds the physical size of the rocket.

As for the spacecraft, the designs calls for a pressurized section at the top with an unpressurized section beneath. The pressurized section would hold up to 100 passengers (thought Musk hopes to eventually increase that capacity to 200 people per trip), while all the luggage and cargo necessary for building the Martian colony would be kept in the unpressurized section below.

As for the crew compartments themselves, Musk was sure to illustrate how time in them would not be boring, since the transit time is a long. “Therefore, the crew compartment or the occupant compartment is set up so that you can do zero-gravity games – you can float around,” he said. “There will be movies, lecture halls, cabins, and a restaurant. It will be really fun to go. You are going to have a great time!”

The system architecture of the Interplanetary Transport System. Credit: SpaceX

Below both these sections, the liquid oxygen tank, fuel tank and spacecraft engines are located. The engines, which would be directly attached to the thrust cone at the base, would consists of an outer ring of three sea-level engines – which would generate 361 seconds of specific impulse (Isp) – and an inner cluster of six vacuum engines that would generate 382s Isp.

The exterior of the spacecraft will also be fitted with a heatshield, which will be composed of the same material that SpaceX uses on its Dragon spacecraft. This is known as a phenolic-impregnated carbon ablator (PICA), which SpaceX is on their third version of.  In total, Musk estimates that the Interplanetary Spaceship will be able to transport 450 tons of cargo to Mars, depending upon how many times the tanker can refill the craft.

And, depending on the Earth-Mars rendezvous, the transit time could be as little as 80 days one-way (figuring for a speed of 6km/s). But with time, Musk hopes to cut that down to just 30 days, which would make it possible to establish a sizable population on Mars in a relatively short amount of time. As Musk indicated, the magic number here in 1 million, meaning the number of people it would take to establish a self-sustaining colony on Mars.

He admitted that this would be a major challenge, and could as long as a century to complete:

“If you can only go every 2 years and if you have 100 people per ship, that is 10,000 trips. Therefore, at least 100 people per trip is the right order of magnitude, and we may end up expanding the crew section and ultimately taking more like 200 or more people per flight in order to reduce the cost per person. However, 10,000 flights is a lot of flights, so ultimately you would really want in the order of 1,000 ships. It would take a while to build up to 1,000 ships. How long it would take to reach that million-person threshold, from the point at which the first ship goes to Mars would probably be somewhere between 20 and 50 total Mars rendezvous—so it would take 40–100 years to achieve a fully self-sustaining civilization on Mars.”

Cutaway of the Interplanetary Spaceship. Credit: SpaceX

When the ITS is ready to launch, it will do so from Launch Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, which SpaceX currently uses to conduct Falcon 9 launches from. But of course, the most daunting aspect of any colonization effort is cost. At present, and using current methods, sending upwards of 1 million people to Mars is simply not affordable.

Using Apollo-era methods as a touchstone, Musk indicated that the cost to go to Mars would be around $10 billion per person – which is derived from the fact that the program itself cost between $100 and $200 billion (adjust for inflation) and resulted in 12 astronauts setting foot on the Moon. Naturally, this is far too high for the sake of creating a self-sustaining colony with a population of 1 million.

As a result, Musk claimed that the cost of transporting people to Mars would have to be cut by a whopping 5 million percent! Musk’s desire to lower the costs associated with space launches is well-known, and is the very reason he founded SpaceX and began developing reusable technology. However, costs would need to be lowered to the point where a ticket to Mars would cost about the same as a median house – i.e. $200,000 – before any trips to Mars could happen.

Artist’s impression of the ITS in transit, with its solar arrays deployed. Credit: SpsaceX

As to how this could be done, several strategies are outlined, many of which Musk and space agencies like NASA are already actively pursuing. They include full Reusability, where all stages of a rocket and its cargo module (not just the first stage) would have to be retrievable and reusable. Refueling in Orbit is a second means, which would mean the spacecraft would not have to carry all the fuel they need with them from Earth.

On top of that, there would have to be the option for propellant Production on Mars, where the spaceship will be able to refuel at Mars to make the return trip. This concept has been explored in the past for lunar and Martian missions. And in Mars’ case, the presence of atmospheric and frozen CO², and water in both the soil and the polar ice caps, would mean that methane, oxygen and hydrogen fuel could all be manufactured.

Lastly, there is the question of which propellant would be best. As it stands, there are there basic choices when it comes – kerosene (rocket fuel), hydrogen, and methane. All of these present certain advantages and can be manufactured in-situ on Mars. But based on a cost-benefit breakdown, Musk claims that methane would be the most cost-effective propellant.

As always, Musk also raised the issue of timelines and next steps. This consisted of a rundown of SpaceX’s accomplishments over the past decade and a half, followed by an outline of what he hopes to see his company do in the coming years and decades.

Artist impression of a Mars settlement with cutaway view. Credit: NASA Ames Research Center

These include the development of the first Interplanetary Spaceship in about four years time, which will be followed by suborbital test flights. He even hinted how the spacecraft could have commercial applications, being used for the rapid transportation of cargo around the world. As for the development of the booster, he indicated that this would be a relatively straightforward process since it simply involves scaling up the existing Falcon 9 booster.

Beyond that, he estimated that (assuming all goes well) a ten-year time frame would suffice for putting all the components together so that it would work for bringing people to Mars. Last, but not least, he offered some glimpses of what could be accomplished with ITS beyond Mars. As the name suggests, Musk is hoping to conduct missions to other destination in the Solar System someday.

Given the opportunities for in-situ fuel production (thanks to the abundance of water ice), the moons of both Jupiter and Saturn were mentioned as possible destination. But beyond moons like Europa, Enceladus, and Titan (all of which were mentioned), even destinations in the trans-Neptunian region of the Solar System were indicated as a possibility.

Given that Pluto also has an abundance of water ice on its surface, Musk claimed that a refueling depot could be built here to service missions to the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud. “I would not recommend this for interstellar journeys,” he admitted, “but this basic system—provided we have filling stations along the way—means full access to the entire greater solar system.”

Artist’s impression of the ITS conducting a flyby of Jupiter. Credit: SpaceX

The publication of this paper, many months after Musk presented the details of his plan to the annual IAC meeting, has naturally generated both approval and skepticism. While there are those who would question Musk’s timelines and his ability to deliver on the proposals contained within, others see it as a crucial step in the fulfillment of Musk’s long-held desire to see the colonization of Mars happen in this century.

To Scott Hubbard, it serves as a valuable contribution to the history of space exploration, something that future generations will be able to access so they can chart the history of Mars exploration – much in the same way NASA archival materials are used to study the history of the Moon landing. As he remarked:

“In my view, publishing this paper provides not only an opportunity for the spacefaring community to read the SpaceX vision in print with all the charts in context, but also serves as a valuable archival reference for future studies and planning. My goal is to make New Space the forum for publication of novel exploration concepts-particularly those that suggest an entrepreneurial path for humans traveling to deep space.”

Elon Musk is no stranger to thinking big and dreaming big. And while many of his proposals in the past did not come about in the time frame he originally specified, no one can doubt that he’s delivered so far. It will be very exciting to see if he can take the company he founded 15 years ago for the sake of fostering the exploration of Mars, and use it instead to lead a colonization effort!

Update: Musk tweeted his thanks to Hubbard for the publication and has indicated that there are some “major changes to the plan coming soon.”

And be sure to check out this video of Musk’s full speech at the 67th annual meeting of the IAC, courtesy of SpaceX:

Further Reading: New Space

Can We Own Space? Buying Your Own Piece of the High Frontier

Space for Sale!


Compared to a regular human, the Earth is enormous. And compared to the Earth, the Universe is really enormous. Like, maybe infinitely enormous.

And yet, Earth is the only place humans are allowed to own. You can buy a plot of land in the city or the country, but you can’t buy land on the Moon, on Mars or on Alpha Centauri.

It’s not that someone wouldn’t be willing to sell it to you. I could point you at a few locations on the internet where someone would be glad to exchange your “Earth money” for some property rights on the Moon. But I can also point you to a series of United Nations resolutions which clearly states that outer space should be free for everyone. Not even the worst rocky outcrop of Maxwell Montes on Venus, or the bottom of Valles Marineris on Mars can be bought or sold.

However, the ability to own property is one of the drivers of the modern economy. Most people either own land, or want to own land. And if humans do finally become a space faring civilization, somebody is going to want to own the property rights to chunks of space. They’re going to want the mining rights to extract resources from asteroids and comets.

We’re going to want to know, once and for all, can I buy the Moon?

Until the space age, the question was purely hypothetical. It was like asking if you could own dragons, or secure the mining rights to dreams. Just in case those become possible, my vote to both is no.

The Sputnik spacecraft stunned the world when it was launched into orbit on Oct. 4th, 1954. Credit: NASA

But when the first satellite was placed into orbit in 1957, things became a lot less hypothetical. Once multiple nations had reached orbitable capabilities, it became clear that some rules needed to be figured out – the Outer Space Treaty.

The first version of the treaty was signed by the US, Soviet Union and the United Kingdom back in 1967. They were mostly concerned with preventing the militarization of space. You’re not allowed to put nuclear weapons into space, you’re not allowed to detonate nuclear weapons on other planets. Seriously, if you’ve got plans and they relate to nuclear weapons, just, don’t.

Can’t kill killer asteroids with nukes. Credit: Los Alamos National Lab

Over the years, almost the entire world has signed onto the Outer Space Treaty. 106 countries are parties and another 24 have signed on, but haven’t fully ratified it yet.

In addition to all those nuclear weapons rules, the United Nations agreed on several other rules. In fact, its full name is, The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies.

Here’s the relevant language:

Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.

No country can own the Moon. No country can own Jupiter. No country can own a tiny planet, off in the corner of the Andromeda Galaxy. And no citizens or companies from those countries can own any property either.

And so far, no country has tried to. Seriously, space exploration is incredibly difficult. We’ve only set foot on the Moon a couple of times, decades ago, and never returned.

But with all the recent developments, it looks like we might be getting closer to wondering if we can own dragons, or a nice acreage on Mars.

Perhaps the most interesting recent development is the creation of not one, not two, but three companies dedicated to mining resources from asteroids: Planetary Resources, Kepler Energy, and Deep Space Industries.

Just a single small asteroid could contain many useful minerals, and there could potentially be tens of billions of dollars in profit for anyone who can sink robotic mining shafts into them.

Asteroid mining concept. Credit: NASA/Denise Watt

The three different companies have their own plans on how they’re going to identify potential mining targets and extract resources, and I’m not going to go into all the details of what it would take to mine an asteroid in this video.

But according to the Outer Space Treaty, is it legal? The answer, is: probably.

The original treaty was actually pretty vague. It said that no country can claim sovereignty over a world in space, but that doesn’t mean we can’t utilize some of its resources. In fact, future missions to the Moon and Mars depend on astronauts “living off the land”, harvesting local resources like ice to make air, drinking water and rocket fuel. Or building structures out of Martian regolith.

Mining an entire asteroid for sweet sweet profit is just a difference of scale.

In order to provide some clarity, the United States passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015. This gave details on how space tourism should work, and described how companies might mine minerals from space. The gist of the law is, if an American citizen can get their hands on materials from an asteroid, they own it, and they’re free to sell it.

The Interplanetary Transport System blasting off. Credit: SpaceX

As you know, SpaceX is planning to colonize Mars. Well, so far, their plans include building the most powerful rocket ever built, and hurling human beings at Mars, hundreds at a time. The first mission is expected to blast off in 2024, so this is quickly becoming a practical issue.

What are the legalities of colonizing Mars? Will you own a chunk of land when you stumble out of the Interplanetary Transport Ship out on the surface of Mars?

Right now, you can imagine the surface of Mars like a research station on Antarctica. If SpaceX, an American company, builds a colony on Mars, then it’s essentially US government property. Anything that happens within that colony is under the laws of the United States.

If a group of colonists from China, for example, set out on their own, they would be building a little piece of China. And no matter what kind of facility they build, nobody within the team actually owns their homes.

If you’re out on the surface, away from a base, everything reverts to international law. Watch out for space pirates!

The space pirates were everywhere. Monday suddenly got a lot more interesting. Credit: NASA/JSC/Pat Rawlings, SAIC

Under the treaty, every facility is obliged to provide access to anyone else out there, which means that members of one facility are free to visit any other facility. You can’t lock your door and keep anyone out.

In fact, if anyone’s in trouble, you’re legally bound to do everything you can (within reason) to lend your assistance.

The bottom line is that the current Outer Space Treaty is not exactly prepared for the future reality of the colonization of Mars. As more and more people reach the Red Planet, you’d expect they’re going to want to govern themselves. We’ve seen this play out time and time again on Earth, so it won’t be surprising when the Mars colonies band together to declare their separation from Earth.

That said, as long as they’re reliant on regular supplies from Earth, they won’t be able to fully declare their independence. As long as they have interests on Earth, our planet’s governments will be able to squeeze them and maintain their dominance.

We've been dreaming about a Mars colony for a long time, as the lovely retro drawing shows. Will SpaceX finally give us one? Image: NASA
Credit: NASA

Once a Mars colony is fully self sufficient, though, which Elon Musk estimates will occur by 1 million inhabitants, Earth will have to recognize a fully independent Mars.

Space law is going to be one of the most interesting aspects of the future of space exploration. It’s really the next frontier. Concepts which were purely theoretical are becoming more and more concrete, and lawyers will finally be the heroes we always knew they could be.

If you’ve always wanted to be an astronaut, but your parents have always wanted you to be a lawyer, now’s your chance to do both. An astronaut space lawyer. I’m just saying, it’s an option.

SpaceX Just Re-Used a Rocket. Why This Changes Everything

SpaceX Just Re-Used a Rocket. Why This Changes Everything

On March 30, 2017, SpaceX performed a pretty routine rocket launch. The payload was a communications satellite called SES-10, owned by a company in Luxembourg. And if all goes well, the satellite will eventually make its way to a high orbit of 35,000 km (22,000 miles) and deliver broadcasting and television services to Latin America.

For all intents and purposes, this is an absolutely normal, routine, and maybe even boring event in the space industry. Another chemical rocket blasted off another communications satellite to join the thousands of satellites that have come before.

Of course, as you probably know, this wasn’t a routine launch. It was the first step in one of the most important achievements in space flight – launch reusability. This was the second time the 14-story Falcon 9 rocket had lifted off and pushed a payload into orbit. Not Falcon 9s in general, but this specific rocket was reused.

SpaceX Falcon 9 booster successfully lands on droneship after blastoff on Dragon CRS-8 mission to ISS for NASA on April 8, 2016. Credit: SpaceX

In a previous life, this booster blasted off on April 8, 2016 carrying CRS-8, SpaceX’s 8th resupply mission to the International Space Station. The rocket launched from Florida’s Cape Canaveral, released its payload, re-entered the atmosphere and returned to a floating robotic barge in the Atlantic Ocean called Of Course I Still Love You. That’s a reference to an amazing series of books by Iain M. Banks.

Why is this such an amazing accomplishment? What does the future hold for reusability? And who else is working on this?

Developing a rocket that could be reused has been one of the holy grails of the space industry, and yet, many considered it an engineering accomplishment that could never be achieved. Trust me, people have tried in the past.

Portions of the space shuttle were reused – the orbiter and the solid rocket boosters. And a few decades ago, NASA tried to develop the X-33 as a single stage reusable rocket, but ultimately canceled the program.

The proposed X-33 spacecraft. Credit: NASA

To reuse a rocket makes total sense. It’s not like you throw out your car when you return from a road trip. You don’t destroy your transatlantic airliner when you arrive in Europe. You check it out, do a little maintenance, refuel it, fill it with passengers and then fly it again.

According to SpaceX founder Elon Musk, a brand new Falcon 9 first stage costs about $30 million. If you could perform maintenance, and then refill it with fuel, you’d bring down subsequent launches to a few hundred thousand dollars.

SpaceX is still working out what a “flight-tested” launch will cost on a reused Falcon 9 will cost, but it should turn into a significant discount on SpaceX’s already aggressive prices. If other launch providers think they’re getting undercut today, just wait until SpaceX really gets cranking with these reused rockets.

For most kinds of equipment, you want them to have been re-used many times. Cars need to be taken to the test track, airplanes are flown on many flights before passengers ever climb inside. SpaceX will have an opportunity to test out each rocket many times, figuring out where they fail, and then re-engineering those components.  This makes for more durable and safer launch hardware, which I suspect is the actual goal here – safety, not cost.

In addition to the first stage, SpaceX also re-used the satellite fairing. This is the covering that makes the payload more aerodynamic while the rocket moves through the lower atmosphere. The fairing is usually ejected and burns up on re-entry, but SpaceX has figured out how to recover that too, saving a few more million.

SpaceX’s goals are even more ambitious. In addition to the first stage booster and launch fairing, SpaceX is looking to reuse the second stage booster. This is a much more complicated challenge, because the second stage is going much faster and needs to lose a lot more velocity. In late 2014, they put their plans on hold for a second stage reuse.

SpaceX’s next big milestone will be to decrease the reuse time. From almost a year to under 24 hours.

The Falcon Heavy, once operational, will be the most powerful rocket in the world. Credit: SpaceX

Sometime this year, SpaceX is expected to do the first launch of the Falcon Heavy. A launch system that looks like it’s made up of 3 Falcon-9 rockets bolted together. Since that’s basically what it is.

The center booster is a reinforced Falcon-9, with two additional Falcon-9s as strap-on boosters. Once the Falcon Heavy lifts off, the three boosters will detach and will individually land back on Earth, ready for reassembly and reuse. This system will be capable of carrying 54,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit. In addition, SpaceX is hoping to take the technology one more step and have the upper stage return to Earth.

Imagine it. Three boosters and upper stage and payload fairing all returning to Earth and getting reused.

And waiting in the wings, of course, is SpaceX’s huge Interplanetary Transport System, announced by Elon Musk in September of 2016. The super-heavy lift vehicle will be capable of carrying 300,000 kilograms into low Earth orbit.

The Interplanetary Transport System blasting off. Credit: SpaceX

For comparison, the Apollo era Saturn V could carry 140,000 kg into low Earth orbit, so this thing will be much much bigger. But unlike the Saturn V, it’ll be capable of returning to Earth, and landing on its launch pad, ready for reuse.

SpaceX just crossed a milestone, but they’re not the only player in this field.

Perhaps the biggest competitor to SpaceX comes from another internet entrepreneur: Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the 2nd richest man in the world after Bill Gates. Bezos founded his own rocket company, Blue Origin in Seattle, which had been working in relative obscurity for the last decade. But in the last few years, they demonstrated their technology for reusable rocket flight, and laid out their plans for competing with SpaceX.

The New Shepard launching from its facility in West Texas. Image: Blue Origin
The New Shepard rocket launching from its facility in West Texas. Image: Blue Origin

In April 2015, Blue Origin launched their New Shepard rocket on a suborbital trajectory. It went up to an altitude of about 100 km, and then came back down and landed on its launch pad again. It made a second flight in November 2015, a third flight in April 2016, and a fourth flight in June 2016.

That does sound exciting, but keep in mind that reaching 100 km in altitude requires vastly less energy than what the Spacex Falcon 9 requires. Suborbital and orbital are two totally milestones. The New Shepard will be used to carry paying tourists to the edge of space, where they can float around weightlessly in the vomit of the other passengers.

But Blue Origin isn’t done. In September 2016, they announced their plans for the follow-on New Glenn rocket. And this will compete head to head with SpaceX. Scheduled to launch by 2020, like, within 3 years or so, the New Glenn will be an absolute monster, capable of carrying 45,000 kilograms of cargo into low Earth orbit. This will be comparable to SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy or NASA’s Space Launch System.

The New Glenn spacecraft. Credit: Blue Origin

Like the Falcon 9, the New Glenn will return to its launch pad, ready for a planned reuse of 100 flights.

A decade ago, the established United Launch Alliance – a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed-Martin – was firmly in the camp of disposable launch systems, but even they’re coming around to the competition from SpaceX. In 2014, they began an alliance with Blue Origin to develop the Vulcan rocket.

Rendering of the ULA Vulcan rocket blasting off. United Launch Alliance (ULA) next generation rocket is set to make its debut flight in 2019. Credit: ULA

The Vulcan will be more of a traditional rocket, but some of its engines will detach in mid-flight, re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere, deploy parachutes and be recaptured by helicopters as they’re returning to the Earth. Since the engines are the most expensive part of the rocket, this will provide some cost savings.

There’s another level of reusability that’s still in the realm of science fiction: single stage to orbit. That’s where a rocket blasts off, flies to space, returns to Earth, refuels and does it all over again. There are some companies working on this, but it’ll be the topic for another episode.

Now that SpaceX has successfully launched a first stage booster for the second time, this is going to become the new normal. The rocket companies are going to be fine tuning their designs, focusing on efficiency, reliability, and turnaround time.

These changes will bring down the costs of launching payloads to orbit. That’ll mean it’s possible to launch satellites that were too expensive in the past. New scientific platforms, communications systems, and even human flights become more reasonable and commonplace.

Of course, we still need to take everything with a grain of salt. Most of what I talked about is still under development. That said, SpaceX just reused a rocket. They took a rocket that already launched a satellite, and used it to launch another satellite.

It’s a pretty exciting time, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Now you know how I feel about this accomplishment, I’d like to hear your thoughts. Do you think we’re at the edge of a whole new era in space exploration, or is this more of the same? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

What Is The Interplanetary Transport Network?

What is the Interplanetary Transport Network?

It was with great fanfare that Elon Musk announced SpaceX’s plans to colonize Mars with the Interplanetary Transport System.

I really wish they’d stuck to their original name, the BFR, the Big Fabulous Rocket, or something like that.

The problem is that Interplanetary Transport System is way too close a name to another really cool idea, the Interplanetary Transport Network, which gives you an almost energy free way to travel across the entire Solar System. Assuming you’re not in any kind of rush.

When you imagine rockets blasting off for distant destinations, you probably envision pointing your rocket at your destination, firing the thrusters until you get there. Maybe turning around and slowing down again to land on the alien world. It’s how you might drive your car, or fly a plane to get from here to there.

But if you’ve played any Kerbal Space Program, you know that’s not how it works in space. Instead, it’s all about orbits and velocity. In order to get off planet Earth, you have be travelling about 8 km/s or 28,000 km/h sideways.

Artist's concept of a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket in Low Earth Orbit. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket in Low Earth Orbit. Credit: NASA

So now, you’re orbiting the Earth, which is orbiting the Sun. If you want to get to Mars, you have raise your orbit so that it matches Mars. The absolute minimum energy needed to make that transfer is known as the Hohmann transfer orbit. To get to Mars, you need to fire your thrusters until you’re going about 11.3 km/s.

Then you escape the pull of Earth, follow a nice curved trajectory, and intercept the trajectory of Mars. Assuming you timed everything right, that means you intercept Mars and go into orbit, or land on its surface, or discover a portal to hell dug into a research station on Phobos.

If you want to expend more energy, go ahead, you’ll get there faster.

But it turns out there’s another way you can travel from planet to planet in the Solar System, using a fraction of the energy you would use with the traditional Hohmann transfer, and that’s using Lagrange points.

We did a whole article on Lagrange points, but here’s a quick refresher. The Lagrange points are places in the Solar System where the gravity between two objects balances out in five places. There are five Lagrange points relating to the Earth and the Sun, and there are five Lagrange points relating to the Earth and the Moon. And there are points between the Sun and Jupiter, etc.

Illustration of the Sun-Earth Lagrange Points. Credit: NASA
Illustration of the Sun-Earth Lagrange Points. Credit: NASA

Three of these points are unstable. Imagine a boulder at the top of a mountain. It doesn’t take much energy to keep it in place, but it’s easy to knock it out of balance so it comes rolling down.

Now, imagine the whole Solar System with all these Lagrange points for all the objects gravitationally interacting with each other. As planets go around the Sun, these Lagrange points get close to each other and even overlap.

And if you time things right, you can ride along in one gravitationally balanced point, and the roll down the gravity hill into the grasp of a different planet. Hang out there for a little bit and then jump orbits to another planet.

In fact, you can use this technique to traverse the entire Solar System, from Mercury to Pluto and beyond, relying only on the interacting gravity of all these worlds to provide you with the velocity you need to make the journey.

Welcome to the Interplanetary Transport Network, or Interplanetary Superhighway.

Unlike a normal highway, though, the actual shape and direction these pathways take changes all the time, depending on the current configuration of the Solar System.

800px-Interplanetary_Superhighway
A stylized example of one of the many, ever-changing routes along the ITN. Credit: NASA

If you think this sounds like science fiction, you’ll be glad to hear that space agencies have already used a version of this network to get some serious science done.

NASA greatly extended the mission of the International Sun/Earth Explorer 3, using these low energy transfers, it was able to perform its primary mission and then investigate a couple of comets.

The Japanese Hiten spacecraft was supposed to travel to the Moon, but its rocket failed to get enough velocity to put it into the right orbit. Researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory calculated a trajectory that used the Lagrange points to help it move slowly and get to the Moon any way.

NASA’s Genesis Mission used the technique to capture particles from the solar wind and bring them back to the Earth.

There have been other missions to use the technique, and missions have been proposed that might exploit this technique to fully explore all the moons of Jupiter or Saturn, for example. Traveling from moon to moon when the gravity points line up.

It all sounds too good to be true, so here’s the downside. It’s slow. Really, painfully slow.

Like it can take years and even decades to move from world to world.

Imagine in the far future, there are space stations positioned at the major Lagrange points around the planets in the Solar System. Maybe they’re giant rotating space stations, like in 2001, or maybe they’re hollowed out asteroids or comets which have been maneuvered into place.

Exterior view of a Stanford torus. Bottom center is the non-rotating primary solar mirror, which reflects sunlight onto the angled ring of secondary mirrors around the hub. Painting by Donald E. Davis
Exterior view of a Stanford torus. Bottom center is the non-rotating primary solar mirror, which reflects sunlight onto the angled ring of secondary mirrors around the hub. Painting by Donald E. Davis

They hang out at the Lagrange points using minimal fuel for station keeping. If you want to travel from one planet to another, you dock your spacecraft at the space station, refuel, and then wait for one of these low-energy trajectories to open up.

Then you just kick away from the Lagrange point, fall into the gravity well of your destination, and you’re on your way.

In the far future, we could have space stations at all the Lagrange points, and slow ferries that move from world to world along low energy trajectories, bringing cargo from world to world. Or taking passengers who can’t afford the high velocity Hohmann transfer technique.

You could imagine the space stations equipped with powerful lasers that fill your ship’s solar sails with the photons it needs to take you to the next destination. But then, I’m a sailor, so maybe I’m overly romanticizing it.

Here’s another, even more mind-bending concept. Astronomers have observed these networks open up between interacting galaxies. Want to transfer from the Milky Way to Andromeda? Just get your spacecraft to the galactic Lagrange point in a few billion years as they pass through each other. With very little energy, you’ll be able to join the cool kids in Andromeda.

I love this idea that colonizing and traveling across the Solar System doesn’t actually need to take enormous amounts of energy. If you’re patient, you can just ride the gravitational currents from world to world. This might be one of the greatest gifts the Solar System has made available to us.

When Will We Send Astronauts to Mars?

History was made on July 20th, 1969, when Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the surface of the Moon. The moment was the culmination of decades of hard work, research, development and sacrifice. And since that time, human beings have been waiting and wondering when we might achieve the next great astronomical milestone.

So really, when will we see a man or woman set foot on Mars? The prospect has been talked about for decades, back when NASA and the Soviets were still planning on setting foot on the Moon. It is the next logical step, after all. And at present, several plans are in development that could be coming to fruition in just a few decades time.

Original Proposals:

Werner Von Braun, the (in)famous former Nazi rocket scientist – and the man who helped spearhead NASA’s Project Mercury – was actually the first to develop a concept for a crewed mission to Mars. Titled The Mars Project (1952), his proposal called for ten spacecraft (7 passenger, 3 cargo) that would transport a crew of 70 astronauts to Mars.

In between launching V-2s in New Mexico and developing rockets at Redstone Arsenal, Von Braun had time to write Mars Projekt (1952) in which he outlined a mission to Mars delivering 70 explorers. Much has changed since that early vision but some of his concepts may still become a reality and solve the problem of sending SpaceX colonists to Mars. (Credit: Mars Project, Von Braun)
In between launching V-2s in New Mexico and developing rockets at Redstone Arsenal, Von Braun had time to write Mars Projekt (1952). Credit: Mars Project, Von Braun

His proposal was based in part on the large Antarctic expedition known as Operation Highjump (1946–1947), a US Navy program which took place a few years before he started penning his treatise. The plan called for the construction of the interplanetary spacecraft in around the Earth using a series of reusable space shuttles.

He also believed that, given the current pace of space exploration, such a mission could be mounted by 1965 (later revised to 1980) and would spend the next three years making the round trip mission. Once in Mars orbit, the crew would use telescopes to find a suitable site for their base camp near the equator.

A landing crew would then descend using a series of detachable winged aircraft (with ski landing struts) and glide down to land on the polar ice caps. A skeleton crew would remain with the ships in orbit as the surface crew would then travel 6,500 km overland using crawlers to the identified base camp site.

They would then build a landing strip which would allow the rest of the crew to descend from orbit in wheeled gliders. After spending a total of 443 days on Mars conducting surveys and research, the crew would use these same gliders as ascent craft to return to the mother ships.

Astronaut Eugene pollo 17 mission, 11 December 1972. Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan, commander, makes a short checkout of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV)
Astronaut Eugene A. Cernan during the Apollo 17 mission, December 11th, 1972, shown conducting a checkout of the Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV). Credit: NASA

Von Braun not only calculated the size and weight of each ship, but also how much fuel each would require for the round trip. He also computed the rocket burns necessary to perform the required maneuvers. Because of the detailed nature, calculations and planning in his proposal, The Mars Project remains one of the most influential books on human missions to the Red Planet.

Obviously, such a mission didn’t happen by 1965 (or 1980 for that matter). In fact, humans didn’t even return to the Moon after Eugene Cernan climbed out of the Apollo 17 capsule in 1972. With the winding down of the Space Race and the costs of sending astronauts to the Moon, plans to explore Mars were placed on the backburner until the last decade of the 20th century.

In 1990, a proposal called Mars Direct was developed by Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society and fellow aerospace engineer David Baker. This plan envisioned a series of cost-effective mission to Mars using current technology, with the ultimate goal of colonization.

The initial missions would involve crews landing on the surface and leaving behind hab-structures, thus making subsequent missions easier to undertake. In time, the surface habs would give way to subsurface pressurized habitats built from locally-produced Martian brick. This would represent a first step in the development of in-situ resource utilization, and eventual human settlement.

Artist's rendering of Mars Semi-Direct/DRA 1.0: The Manned Habitat Unit is "docked" alongside a pre placed habitat that was sent ahead of the Earth Return Vehicle. Credit: NASA
Artist’s rendering Manned Habitat Units and Mars vehicles, part of the Mars Design Reference Mission 3.0. Credit: NASA

During and after this initial phase of habitat construction, hard-plastic radiation- and abrasion-resistant geodesic domes would be deployed to the surface for eventual habitation and crop growth. Local industries would begin to grow using indigenous resources, which would center around the manufacture of plastics, ceramics and glass out of Martian soil, sand and hydrocarbons.

While Zubrin acknowledged that Martian colonists would be partially Earth-dependent for centuries, he also stated that a Mars colony would also be able to create a viable economy. For one, Mars has large concentrations of precious metals that have not been subjected to millennia of human extracting. Second, the concentration of deuterium – a possible source for rocket fuel and nuclear fusion – is five times greater on Mars.

In 1993, NASA adopted a version of this plan for their “Mars Design Reference” mission, which went through five iterations between 1993 and 2009. And while it involved a great deal of thinking and planning, it failed to come up with any specific hardware or projects.

Current Proposals:

Things changed in the 21st century after two presidential administrations made fateful decisions regarding NASA. The first came in 2004 when President George W. Bush announced the “Vision for Space Exploration“. This involved retiring the Space Shuttle and developing a new class of launchers that could take humans back to the Moon by 2020 – known as the Constellation Program.

Then, in February of 2010, the Obama administration announced that it was cancelling the Constellation Program and passed the Authorization Act of 2010. Intrinsic to this plan was a Mars Direct mission concept, which called for the development of the necessary equipment and systems to mount a crewed mission to Mars by the 2030s.

In 2015, NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) presented the “Evolvable Mars Campaign”, which outlined their plans for their “Journey to Mars’ by the 2030s. Intrinsic to this plan was the use of the new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) and the Space Launch System (SLS).

The proposed journey would involve Three Phases, which would involve a total of 32 SLS launches between 2018 and the 2030s. These missions would send all the necessary components to cis-lunar space and then onto near-Mars space before making crewed landings onto the surface.

Phase One (the “Earth Reliant Phase”) calls for long-term studies aboard the ISS until 2024, as well as testing the SLS and Orion Crew capsule. Currently, this involves the planned launch of Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) in Sept. of 2018, which will be the first flight of the SLS and the second uncrewed test flight of the Orion spacecraft.

NASA's Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL
NASA’s Journey to Mars. NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. Credit: NASA/JPL

NASA also plans to capture a near=Earth asteroid and bring it into lunar orbit, as a means of testing the capabilities and equipment for a Mars mission. Known as the Asteroid Redirect Mission, this mission is scheduled to take place in the 2020s and would primarily involve a robotic mission towing the asteroid and returning samples.

Exploration Mission 2 (EM-2), the first crewed flight using the Orion capsule, would conduct a flyby around the Moon and this asteroid between 2021 and 2023. At this point, NASA would be moving into Phase Two (“Proving Ground”) of the Journey to Mars, where the focus would move away from Earth and into cis-lunar space.

Multiple SLS launches would deliver the mission components during this time – including a habitat that would eventually be transported to Martian orbit, landing craft, and exploration vehicles for the surface of Mars. This phase also calls for the testing of key technologies, like Solar Electric Propulsion (aka. the ion engine).

By the early 2030s, Phase Three (“Earth Independent”) would begin. This calls for testing the entry, descent and landing techniques needed to get to the Martian surface, and the development of in-situ resource utilization. It also calls for the transferring of all mission components (and an exploration crew) to Martian orbit, from which the crews would eventually mount missions to designated “Exploration Zones” on the surface.

On Sept. 15th, 2016, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016, a measure designed to ensure short-term stability for the agency in the coming year.

The European Space Agency (ESA) has long-term plans to send humans to Mars, though they have yet to build a manned spacecraft. As part of the Aurora Program, this would involve a crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s using an Ariane M rocket. Other key points along that timeline include the ExoMars rover (2016-2020), a crewed mission to the Moon in 2024, and an automated mission to Mars in 2026.

Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency, is also planning a crewed mission to Mars, but doesn’t envision it happening until between 2040 and 2060. In the meantime, they have conducted simulations (called Mars-500), which wrapped up in Russia back in 2011. The Chinese space agency similarly has plans to mount a crewed mission to Mars between 2040 and 2060, but only after crewed missions to Mars take place.

In 2012, a group of Dutch entrepreneurs revealed plans for a crowdfunded campaign to establish a human Mars base, beginning in 2023. Known as MarsOne, the plan calls for a series of one-way missions to establish a permanent and expanding colony on Mars, which would be financed with the help of media participation.

Other details of the MarsOne plan include sending a telecom orbiter by 2018, a rover in 2020, and the base components and its settlers by 2023. The base would be powered by 3,000 square meters of solar panels and the SpaceX Falcon 9 Heavy rocket would be used to launch the hardware. The first crew of 4 astronauts would land on Mars in 2025; then, every two years, a new crew of 4 astronauts would arrive.

SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has also announced plans to establish a colony on Mars in the coming decades. Intrinsic to this plan is the development of the Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), a spaceflight system that would rely of reusable rocket engines, launch vehicles and space capsules to transport humans to Mars and return to Earth.

As of 2014, SpaceX has begun development of the large Raptor rocket engine for the Mars Colonial Transporter, and a successful test was announced in September of 2016. In January 2015, Musk said that he hoped to release details of the “completely new architecture” for the Mars transport system in late 2015.

In June 2016, Musk stated in the first unmanned flight of the MCT spacecraft would take place in 2022, followed by the first manned MCT Mars flight departing in 2024. In September 2016, during the 2016 International Astronautical Congress, Musk revealed further details of his plan, which included the design for an Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) – an upgraded version of the MCT.

According to Musk’s estimates, the ITS would cost $10 billion to develop and would be ready to ferry the first passengers to Mars as early as 2024. Each of the SpaceX vehicles would accommodate 100 passengers, with trips being made every 26 months (when Earth and Mars are closest). Musk also estimated that tickets would cost $500,000 per person, but would later drop to a third of that.

And while some people might have a hard time thinking of MarsOne’s volunteers or SpaceX’s passengers as astronauts, they would nevertheless be human beings setting foot on the Red Planet. And if they should make it there before any crewed missions by a federal space agency, are we really going to split hairs?

So the question remains, when will see people sent to Mars? The answer is, assuming all goes well, sometime in the next two decades. And while there are plenty who doubt the legitimacy of recent proposals, or the timetables they include, the fact that we are speaking about going to Mars a very real possibility shows just how far we’ve come since the Apollo era.

And does anyone need to be reminded that there were plenty of doubts during the “Race to the Moon” as well? At the time, there were plenty of people claiming the resources could be better spent elsewhere and those who doubted it could even be done. Once again, it seems that the late and great John F. Kennedy should have the last word on that:

“We choose to go to the Moon! … We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

We’ve written many articles about humans traveling to Mars. Here’s how new technology might slash the time to travel to Mars down to 39 days, and here’s an article about a team that did a simulated Mars mission.

If you’d like more information about humans traveling to Mars, check out the Mars Society’s homepage. And here’s a link to MarsDrive, and another group looking to send people to Mars.

We’ve also recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about missions to Mars. Listen here, Episode 94: Humans to Mars, Part 1

Sources:

Apollo 11 Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin Talks to Universe Today about ‘Destination Mars’

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin discusses the human ‘Journey to Mars with Universe Today at newly opened ‘Destination Mars’ holographic experience during media preview at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida on Sept. 18, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin discusses the human ‘Journey to Mars with Universe Today at newly opened ‘Destination Mars’ holographic experience during media preview at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida on Sept. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER VISITOR COMPLEX, FL – Sending humans on a ‘Journey to Mars’ and developing strategies and hardware to accomplish the daunting task of getting ‘Humans to Mars’ is NASA’s agency wide goal and the goal of many space enthusiasts – including Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin.

NASA is going full speed ahead developing the SLS Heavy lift rocket and Orion crew module with a maiden uncrewed launch from the Kennedy Space Center set for late 2018 to the Moon. Crewed Mars missions would follow by the 2030s.

In the marketplace of ideas, there are other competing and corollary proposals as well from government, companies and private citizens on pathways to the Red Planet. For example SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wants to establish a colony on Mars using an Interplanetary Transport System of SpaceX developed rockets and spaceships.

Last week I had the opportunity to ask Apollo 11 Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin for his thoughts about ‘Humans to Mars’ and the role of commercial space – following the Grand Opening ceremony for the new “Destination Mars’ holographic exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida.

Moonwalker Aldrin strongly advocated for more commercial activity in space and that “exposure to microgravity” for “many commercial products” is good, he told Universe Today.

More commercial activities in space would aid space commerce and getting humans to Mars.

“We need to do that,” Aldrin told me.

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin describes newly opened ‘Destination Mars’ holographic experience during media preview at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida on Sept. 18, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin describes newly opened ‘Destination Mars’ holographic experience during media preview at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida on Sept. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Buzz Aldrin is the second man to set foot on the Moon. He stepped onto the lunar soil a few minutes after Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong, on July 20, 1969 in the Sea of Tranquility.

Aldrin also strongly supports some type of American space station capability “beyond the ISS” to foster the Mars capability.

And we need to be thinking about that follow on “US capability” right now!

“I think we need to have a US capability beyond the ISS to prepare for future activities right from the beginning,” Aldrin elaborated.

Currently the ISS partnership of the US, Russia, ESA, Japan and Canada has approved extending the operations of the International Space Station (ISS) until 2024. What comes after that is truly not known.

NASA is not planning for a follow-on space station in low Earth orbit at this time. The agency seems to prefer development of a commercial space station, perhaps with core modules from Bigelow Aerospace and/or other companies.

So that commercial space station will have to be designed, developed and launched by private companies. NASA and others would then lease space for research and other commercial activities and assorted endeavors on the commercial space station.

For example, Bigelow wants to dock their privately developed B330 habitable module at the ISS by 2020, following launch on a ULA Atlas V. And then spin it off as an independent space station when the ISS program ends – see my story.

Only China has firm plans for a national space station in the 2020’s. And the Chinese government has invited other nations to submit proposals. Russia’s ever changing space exploration plans may include a space station – but that remains to be actually funded and seen.

Regarding Mars, Aldrin has lectured widely and written books about his concept for “cycling pathways to occupy Mars,” he explained.

Watch this video of Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin speaking to Universe Today:

Video Caption: Buzz Aldrin at ‘Destination Mars’ Grand Opening at KSCVC. Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin talks to Universe Today/Ken Kremer during Q&A at ‘Destination Mars’ Holographic Exhibit Grand Opening ceremony at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex (KSCVC) in Florida on 9/18/16. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Here is a transcript:

Universe Today/Ken Kremer: Can you talk about the role of commercial space [in getting humans to Mars]. Elon Musk wants to try and send people to Mars, maybe even before NASA. What do you think?

Buzz Aldrin: “Well, being a transportation guy in space for humans – well commercial, what that brings to mind is tourism plus space travel.

And there are many many more things commercial that are done with products that can be fine tuned by exposure to microgravity. And we need to do that.”

“I think we need to have a US capability beyond the ISS to prepare for future activities right from the beginning.”

“And that’s why what has sort of fallen into place is the name for my plan for the future – which is ‘cycling pathways to occupy Mars.’”

“A cycler in low Earth orbit, one in lunar orbit, and one to take people to Mars.”

“And they are utilized in evolutionary fashion.”

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin during media preview of newly opened ‘Destination Mars’ holographic experience at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida on Sept. 18, 2016.  Credit Julian Leek
Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin during media preview of newly opened ‘Destination Mars’ holographic experience at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida on Sept. 18, 2016. Credit Julian Leek

Meanwhile, be sure to visit the absolutely spectacular “Destination Mars” holographic exhibit before it closes on New Year’s Day 2017 – because it is only showing at KSCVC.

A scene from ‘Destination Mars’ of Buzz Aldrin and  NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover with the Gale crater rim in the distance. The new, limited time interactive exhibit is now showing at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida through Jan 1, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL/Microsoft
A scene from ‘Destination Mars’ of Buzz Aldrin and NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover with the Gale crater rim in the distance. The new, limited time interactive exhibit is now showing at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida through Jan 1, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL/Microsoft

You can get more information or book a visit to Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, by clicking on the website link:

https://www.kennedyspacecenter.com/things-to-do/destination-mars.aspx

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin discusses the human ‘Journey to Mars with Universe Today at newly opened ‘Destination Mars’ holographic experience during media preview at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida on Sept. 18, 2016.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin discusses the human ‘Journey to Mars with Universe Today at newly opened ‘Destination Mars’ holographic experience during media preview at the Kennedy Space Center visitor complex in Florida on Sept. 18, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com