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Mr. Musk Goes to Mars

The founder and CEO of SpaceX has laid out a dazzling plan for getting to the Red Planet, but he also left a lot of blanks to fill in.
September 27, 2016

Want to go to Mars? Elon Musk thinks you can—and that the future of our species depends on it.

Musk told a swooning crowd at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Tuesday that colonizing Mars was key to warding off our own extinction, and that his sole reason for what he politely referred to as “accumulating assets” is to fund the quest to make humanity “a space-faring species and multi-planet civilization.”

In a sprawling presentation chock full of sexy visuals, he laid out his plan to build a giant interplanetary spaceship that would ferry the first Mars colonists to their new home. Bigger than a Saturn V, the Apollo program’s famed workhorse, his rocket would be capable of hauling four times more people and gear into orbit. Fuel would come separately on tanker craft, and only when the planets were properly aligned would the Mars fleet depart. Musk said that eventually up to 1,000 such ships would be in service.

Terraforming Mars. It's that easy.

The audacious goals were backed up with small, ever-so-titillating details. Earlier this week, SpaceX successfully test-fired a Raptor engine, 47 of which will go on the main booster rocket. A team from SpaceX had just built the ship’s enormous carbon-fiber fuel tank. In one slide they stood in a hangar, dwarfed beneath it.

It was all made to feel just around the corner. But Musk glossed over or left out just a few important details.

The (simulated) view from inside a Mars-bound spacecraft, which Musk said will be packed with restaurants and zero-gravity games as well as people and cargo. "You're gonna have a great time," he said.

He did acknowledge that at the moment, even “infinite money” would not get someone to Mars, but he failed to talk much about his scheme for reducing the cost of a ticket to around $200,000—beyond comparing his spaceship to a Boeing 737 that needs to be used a lot to recoup the cost of purchase. He suggested, casually, that 15 to 30 flights ought to get the price of a seat on an ungodly expensive rocket down to about the “the median cost of a home” in the U.S.

The subject of funding the whole thing did come up, briefly, and strangely enough Musk did not suggest folding a Tesla-SolarCity mashup company into SpaceX. Instead he said that his personal wealth, revenue from SpaceX’s commercial launches, and a huge (and vague) “public-private partnership” with governments of the world would be necessary to see the project through.

That was followed closely by one of the more telling moments of Musk’s appearance. With a flash of unguarded hubris, Musk let slip during the Q&A session that he’d name the first Mars-bound ship Heart of Gold. It’s a cute Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reference, but it also shows that he really sees this as his project, not all of humanity’s—no matter how much money or assistance he gets from elsewhere.

Musk also managed to leave out how people might actually survive once the Musk Express drops them off. His response to that question was to compare his vision to building the Union Pacific Railroad across North America. SpaceX is building the transportation network, not the actual colony, he said. People once thought it was ridiculous to build a train line to the West Coast, he added. People said, “There’s nothing out there—why would you do that?” And now look—California is home to Silicon Valley, the center of the technology world.

Interesting comparison, but does Musk know something we don’t? Are there a bunch of Martians out there right now, building ships that will fly toward Earth, and we’re going to meet in the asteroid belt?

As the session wound down, it was clear that most of the crowd had come to fawn over Musk rather than to engage in any serious discourse about the practicalities of getting people to Mars, building a colony, and getting them back. “Questioners” turned out to be people hawking their startups to the Great Man. One woman asked if he wanted to “go upstairs for a good-luck kiss.”

Still, one cannot fault Musk for dreaming big, or many of us for wanting to believe he just might be on to something. He has, after all, accomplished a tremendous amount down here on grubby ol’ Earth. If he can manage to get us to the next planet from the sun, maybe it will be as he says, and we’ll all be better off.

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