Technology & Science

Elon Musk reveals plan to get humans to Mars within 10 years

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk updated the world on his ambitious plans to get humans to Mars within the next 10 years, something he said would insure the human race against some kind of doomsday event, which he said is likely inevitable at some point in the distant future.

SpaceX CEO says a craft could carry 100 people

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says that he wants to send an uncrewed Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018, a first step in his goal to fly people to another planet. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk updated the world on his ambitious plans to get humans to Mars within the next 10 years, something he said would insure the human race against some kind of doomsday event, which he said is likely inevitable at some point in the distant future.

It's a feat facing considerable technical and financial challenges, he acknowledged.

He laid out his plan in a keynote speech called "Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species" at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.

"If things go super well," he said, he would send a craft with 100 people aboard to Mars, and it could take as little as 80 days to get there.

But even though he said Mars is the best and closest option for habitation, any plan will be incredibly expensive. He said it will likely need the support of private and public funding.

Musk said he will continue with his already announced plans to send an uncrewed Dragon craft to Mars in about two years, with the plan of sending another one two years after that. He said he wants to make these trips "fairly routine" in order to encourage potential funders.

"Right now, we're just trying to make as much progress as we can with the resources we have available to keep moving forward," he said. "And if we show that this is possible, that this dream is real — not just a dream but something that can be made real — I think the support will snowball over time."

Costs and challenges

Musk said there were four main challenges:

  • Rocket reusability. 
  • Refuelling in orbit. 
  • The ability to produce rocket propellant on Mars. 
  • Choosing the right kind of propellant.

"Whatever system is designed, it has to have those four features addressed," said Musk.

He said figuring out all these factors will significantly reduce costs. He said he hopes to eventually lower the cost to something like $200,000 US per person, so that anyone who wants to go to Mars could conceivably do so, either through saving their own money or through funding opportunities.

Musk said it would take 40 to 100 years to achieve a self-sustaining civilization there.

His company also released an animation called "SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System" that has some technical details about the plans (and a lot of dramatic music).

Musk said the animation is based on SpaceX rocket models, so it's very similar to what the company wants to build.

If people do make it to Mars, they will have a challenging environment to contend with.

The planet is cold, dry and windy, with powerful UV rays.

"It's a very harsh environment, so anyone who goes there will have to take measures to protect themselves from these environmental realities," said Richard Léveillé, adjunct professor in the department of Earth and planetary sciences at McGill University.

While a civilization on Mars is perhaps decades away, Musk has made significant progress.

Earlier this year, Musk announced plans to send an unmanned spacecraft, called the Red Dragon, to Mars by 2018, in conjunction with NASA.

The Dragon craft has been tested in space before — in 2012, it became the first commercial spacecraft to carry cargo to and from the International Space Station.

"He's really changed the game in many ways for developing private capabilities for space travel," said Léveillé. "It's really a game-changer in terms of where we are going in terms of space and future destinations and in terms of humanity."

Musk is 'coming on strong'

Robert Zubrin, a Colorado-based aerospace engineer, president of the Mars Society and author of the book The Case for Mars, is an unabashed supporter for colonizing Mars.

He said SpaceX will survive its recent rocket explosion, but it will take a lot of successful launches in a row to convince anyone to put even cargo — let alone people — on one of Musk's vehicles. 

"This is a fragile thing," said Zubrin. "But he is coming on strong and he is showing that he's able to develop things in one-third of the time and one-tenth of the cost that the mainline aerospace industry can."

Zubrin said going to Mars has been a difficult sell, politically. 

"It's expensive and also a program would happen after [the next U.S. president's] term of office — it's more than eight years out."

But he said Musk has been consistently building up his arsenal of hardware that would be needed to send humans to the Red Planet.

"Musk is going to make money sending humans to Mars by being the guy who has the stuff needed to do it when the time comes," said Zubrin.

High pressure

Despite past successes, there's a lot of pressure on Musk. His companies — Tesla Motors and SpaceX — have both had highly publicized problems recently. 

This summer, a driver was killed while using the Autopilot function of a Tesla vehicle. 

On Sept. 1, after several successful landings, one of SpaceX's rockets exploded during what was meant to be a routine pre-launch test. A Falcon rocket and the satellite it was carrying were destroyed. A rocket like the Falcon would be needed to boost a Dragon into space.

The company has still not confirmed what caused the explosion, but it announced last week that a breached helium system was the source.

Musk called the Sept. 1 failure the most difficult and complex one in the company's 14-year history.

About the Author

Laura Wright is an online reporter and editor for CBC News in Toronto. She previously worked for CBC North in Yellowknife.

With files from CBC's Justin Hayward and Reuters

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