Elon Musk Unveils Long Awaited Plan to Colonize Mars, and Then the Solar System

Mars City

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars and then move on to the planets. Yesterday (September 27), at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, hosted by the International Astronautical Federation (IAF), Musk announced his long-awaited space colonization plan in a special keynote – full of technical specifications of system components including the recently rested “Raptor” engine, and interrupted by frequent applause from the audience – titled “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species.”

Musk started right away with the most important question: Why? The answer: the history of humanity is about to bifurcate and take one of two possible paths. In one path, humanity stays on Earth forever and is ultimately destroyed by some life extinction event. The other path leads to the stars, and it’s the right path to take.

Mars is the best place to start our journey toward becoming a multi-planetary species.

It’s a little cold, but we can warm it up.

Musk’s talk is online on the SpaceX YouTube channel. Don’t start watching from the beginning: the first 20 minutes consist of background images and music. Jump to minute 21, when CNES President and IAF President Elect Jean-Yves Le Gall introduces Musk. The slide presentation shown by Musk can be downloaded from the SpaceX website.

Mars City

The second video is an excerpt from the main one that shows a simulation of the planned SpaxeX Mars transportation system operations. Musk emphasized that the simulation has been produced by the actual designs that SpaceX engineers are developing: it’s not a rough sketch of how things could be, but an outline of the actual SpaceX plans. The last few seconds of the video show a rapidly spinning Mars that gradually becomes green due to terraforming.

A Self-Sustaining Planetary Civilization on Mars

Elon Musk
Elon Musk – IAC keynote 2016.

Musk wants to see a significant fraction of the current 7 billion people on Earth living in cities on Mars. But first we need to bring down the cost of sending a person to Mars down from the current estimate of $10 billion to $200,000, the average cost of a house in the US. Once that happens, Musk is persuaded that the colonization of Mars will take off.

Musk’s strategy to achieve such a huge reduction of space transportation costs – a 5 million percent improvement – is centered on four elements: Full reusability; Refilling in orbit; propellant production on Mars; and, of course, choosing the right propellant. According to the analysis of SpaceX engineers, the right propellant is methane.

According to Musk’s estimate, the needed initial investment in technology development and testing is of the order of $10 billion. The entrepreneur is very optimistic about the possible timeline. SpaceX will start with preliminary missions soon, including a propulsive lander mission in a couple of years. “If things go superwell,” said Musk, the first colonists could set foot on Mars “in the 10-year time frame.” Then, if things continue to go superwell, large space ships carrying about 100 colonists each will take one million people to Mars – sufficient for a self-sustaining civilization on the red planet – in 40 to 100 years.

Unfortunately things can’t be expected to always go superwell, as painfully shown by the explosion that, only a few weeks ago, destroyed a SpaceX rocket and a communications satellite on the launchpad. But even with more conservative estimates that take all too probable setbacks into account, say first landing in a couple of decades and establishment of a one million people Mars colony in a couple of centuries, Musk’s plan are nothing short of impressive, and energizing, a much needed optimism boost for our culture and society.

The SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System will not stop at Mars, but provide access to the entire solar system. Musk envisages a solar system-wide network of propellant factories and depositories, for example located on Jupiter’s moons, to refuel spaceships on their way to the outer planets.

Faster, Cheaper, Better

The "Raptor" engine firing
The “Raptor” engine firing.

In the few hours since the talk, Musk’s plan has been covered by the major space and technology news sites, and by the popular press. The Wall Steet Journal‘s article is especially notable, because only major space news make it to the WSJ and reach its select audience of investors and policy makers.

Musk “unveiled his contrarian vision for sending humans to Mars in roughly the next decade, and ultimately setting up colonies there, relying on bold moves by private enterprise, instead of more-gradual steps previously proposed by Washington,” notes the WSJ. “Musk’s message also contained an implicit warning for NASA. His strategy and priorities imply that SpaceX believes it can devise short-term and long-term plans to reach Mars that will be faster, cheaper and better than those being developed by NASA or its counterparts in other countries. The focus is shifting to whether such entrepreneurial initiatives, or a combination of private-public funding, are best suited to further deep space exploration.”

Musk sees the project as “a huge public-private partnership.”

Of course, even assuming that the project will be partly covered by public funding, the question remains of how to raise the money to make planetary colonization happen. Musk mentioned several creative ideas – including Kickstarter! But another possibility, more and more frequently covered by the financial press, is that SpaceX could be heading toward an IPO.

Mars City

Images and videos from SpaceX.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.