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Jason DavisSeptember 29, 2017

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk updates Mars colonization plans

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk presented an updated version of his Mars colonization plans today, during a widely anticipated talk at the 68th International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia.

The new concept features a slightly smaller rocket and spacecraft designed for a broader range of applications beyond Mars, including a Moon base and point-to-point Earth transport. SpaceX will eventually phase out its Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon vehicles completely, relying on its new Mars architecture for all missions.

Today's plans are an evolution of the concept Musk revealed at last year's International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. That presentation unveiled an audacious plan to place a million people on Mars in 40 to 100 years. The updated concept does not drastically depart from SpaceX's original plan, but does add insights into how the new rocket and spacecraft—which Musk estimated would cost $10 billion to develop—might be funded.

"The most important thing I want to convey in this presentation is that I think we have figured out how to pay for it," Musk said.

SpaceX vehicles on Mars


SpaceX vehicles on Mars

An evolving concept

Musk's plan to colonize Mars revolves around a large rocket, codenamed the BFR, which blasts a spaceship carrying up to 100 people into orbit before returning to the launch pad for an upright landing. The rocket then blasts off again carrying a fresh load of fuel for the transport ship. Next, the colonists depart for Mars.

During landing, 99 percent of the vehicle's energy will be shed by trawling through Mars' atmosphere, Musk said, before a final landing burn settles the vehicle onto the Martian surface. 

As for the booster itself, it is now shorter, smaller in width and equipped with less engines. This table shows how the vehicle concept has evolved:

Item2016 Concept2017 ConceptComparison
Width 12 meters  9 meters 10 meters (Saturn V core stage, SLS Block II cargo fairing), 8.4 meters (SLS core stage)
Height (full stack) 122 meters  106 meters 111 meters (Saturn V), 98 meters (SLS)
Engines 42  31 30 (Soviet N-1 moon rocket)
Liftoff thrust 28.7 million lbs  10.8 million lbs 7.9 million lbs (Saturn V first stage), 7.8 million lbs (Space shuttle)
Re-use 1,000 times  Not specified 39 times (Space shuttle Discovery)
Capacity 100 people  100 people 7 astronauts (Space shuttle)
Re-use 100 times  Not specified 39 (Space shuttle Discovery)
Initial development esimate $10 billion  Not specified $30 billion (Space shuttle, 1972, in 2016 dollars)
Single booster, tanker & transport estimate $560 million  Not specified $1.7 billion (Space shuttle Endeavour)
Testing Booster tests 2019, orbital tests 2020, Mars 2022 Two cargo landers on Mars 2022, Four landers (two crewed) Mars 2024  

Paying for it

In order to make the rocket affordable, Musk said SpaceX will rely on cost savings from reusability, as well as combining all of the company's vehicles into a single product line. 

"We want to have one booster and ship that replaces Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon," he said. "If we can do that, all those resources can be applied to this system."

Musk said the larger transport ship would enhance the company's core business offering: launching satellites. He showed off an artist's concept of a Mars craft deploying a supersized-version of the Hubble Space Telescope into Earth orbit, and also said the transport ship could capture defunct satellites and other space debris for return to Earth.

Another possible SpaceX revenue stream is Moon landings.

NASA currently plans to construct a small space station in lunar orbit called the Deep Space Gateway that could serve as a jumping-off point for commercial or international partners interested in landing on the Moon. There is speculation the Trump administration might direct NASA to get more involved with surface operations, leading multiple companies to present lunar vehicle concepts that could compete for government funding. Notably, Lockheed Martin presented a Mars lander of its own earlier today, and said the design was flexible enough for lunar applications.

Musk also said a single tank of fuel, delivered in Earth orbit, would be enough for the transport ship to travel to the lunar surface and return, without any surface mining. 

A final, wildly ambitious revenue stream for the project could be point-to-point Earth flights. SpaceX released a new video depicting a 39-minute passenger flight from New York to Shanghai. 

SpaceX Moon base concept


SpaceX Moon base concept

Details, details

Like last year's talk, Musk's presentation was big on aspiration but short on detail. He spoke for less than an hour, and did not take questions from the audience.

SpaceX's previous plan called for landing its first transport ship on Mars in 2022. The timeline Musk gave today was similar; two cargo landers would land on Mars in 2022, with four vehicles launching in 2024. Two of those 2024 ships would be crewed, meaning, in Musk's timeline, humans could walk on Mars in just seven years.

"That's not a typo," he said. "Though it is aspirational." 

SpaceX is known for its overly ambitious timelines. The company's yet-to-be-launched Falcon Heavy was originally slated to fly as early as late 2013. On average, major SpaceX predications are delayed by about two years.  

Musk did, however, note the company was on track to launch up to 30 rockets in 2018—roughly half the world's missions. His goal of using that success to fulfill his Mars dreams does not appear to have diminished.

"Fundamentally, the future is vastly more exciting if we're a spacefaring civilization and a multi-planet species than if we're not," he said.

Read more: Commercial spaceflight, human spaceflight, the Moon, Mars

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Jason Davis

Editorial Director for The Planetary Society
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