SpaceX and Blue Origin Talk Seriously Going to Mars


SpaceX CEO and nerd-god Elon Musk put forth his architecture for mankind to colonize Mars and potentially other bodies in our solar system on Tuesday, September 27.  As Musk stood in the spotlight describing a huge rocket to transport up to 100 people at a time to Mars, Blue Origin started talking about its own potential to move beyond the Earth.

Musk unveiled his plans at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico before a packed ballroom of hundreds, along with thousands of others watching through a live stream of his talk. 

In his opening remarks, Musk said that it cost around $10 billion to put a person on the Moon.  To colonize Mars, an Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) would have to lower the cost per person to the range of a U.S.  house, around $200,000.  The four keys to dropping the cost of transport to Mars significantly downward, said Musk, are full reusability, refilling in orbit, propellant generation on Mars, and the right propellant.

A launch to Mars would consist of a booster putting a 100 person spacecraft into orbit.  The booster would fly back and return to its launch pad, get refueled, and have a tanker spaceship mounted on top, with a second launch putting the tanker into orbit.  One or more tanker runs would fill up the spacecraft's empty tanks, followed by an 80 to 140 day trip from Earth orbit to Mars landing.   At Mars, the spacecraft would land on its “tail,” off-load people and cargo, then be refueled for the trip home.  Fuel for the spacecraft's trip back to Earth – because you are reusing everything thing to keep costs reasonable – would be super-chilled liquid oxygen and methane, plentiful here on Earth and obtainable easily enough from Mars ice and its carbon monoxide atmosphere.

The ICT is a massive piece of hardware.  Launching from the Kennedy Space Center, it will stand longer than a football field, at 122 meters.  The first stage booster has a diameter of 12 meters while the spaceship and companion Earth-only tanker have a diameter of 17 meters.   We're talking about new hardware that can be compared to the size of Earth ocean sea vessels, rather than the current generation of spacecraft that are closer in size to cars and trucks when they reach orbit.

 Musk outlined plans to reuse and build a 1,000 ship Mars fleet over decades to transport up to one million people to Mars, taking 40 to 100 years to build a fully self-sustaining civilization.  If nothing else, Elon has crunched the numbers for colonizing the Red Planet, something few have done and none with such great attention.

If building a new civilization on Mars wasn't enough excitement, Musk said that the ITS would be capable of reaching anywhere in the immediate solar system if you set up refilling stops along the way.  Tantalizing images of the SpaceX craft were shown on the surfaces of Jupiter's and Saturn's moons, including Europa. 

To get from YouTube video and Powerpoint slides to actual hardware will cost around $10 billion over the next decade, Musk believes, plus more money to build a fleet of ships over the decades to come.  Who will foot the bill is an open question, with Musk suggesting a public/private partnership along with a pledge of his own personal wealth.   Currently, SpaceX is putting in $300 million a year of its own R&D budget, but it will have to find more money and sustainable cash flow to build a fleet of ships.  If memory serves, some of SpaceX's engine R&D is being underwritten by the U.S. Air Force.

But some hardware progress has already been made.  Musk showed off video from the first test of the Raptor engine and pictures of a huge composite cryogenic fuel tank SpaceX has built in-house, commenting he was “amazed” the high-power engine didn't blow up on its first firing.  Both hardware pieces are long-lead items required for the construction of the all-composite ITS first stage.

Musk isn't the only billionaire with his sights on Mars.  Blue Origin dropped some hints about the need for its larger New Armstrong rocket to reach destinations beyond low Earth orbit down in Mexico, reports GeekWire's Alan Boyle, but offered no details.  More details on the New Glenn, primarily designed to put payloads and people into low Earth orbit, are expected to be released in the first quarter of 2016.

Blue Origin, founded by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, tends to be more tight-lipped than SpaceX. The factory for  New Glenn is currently being built in Florida next to NASA's Kennedy Space Center and is expected to start operations “before the end of the decade,” according to company officials.  Bezos, however, has made no secret of his vision to build space infrastructure to ultimately improve the quality of life for humanity.  Whether or not this translates into a commercial race for Mars is a question only the future can answer.

Edited by Alicia Young
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Contributing Editor

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