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Can SpaceX and Musk achieve their Mars dream?

Image credit: Diomedia

Space entrepreneur Elon Musk chose this year’s International Astronautical Congress, held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in September, to announce his plans to colonise Mars.

The somewhat run-down second city of Mexico seems an unlikely place to hear earth-shattering news, but the appearance of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had been well trailed by the International Astronautical Federation, organiser of the annual IAC. Musk rarely appears at such events, so a significant announcement was perhaps predictable – the sheer ambition of it somewhat less so.

The fact that students, and later delegates, queued at auditorium doors for up to 90 minutes before the advertised start time prefaced the unusual event. Registered press were privileged to be shoehorned through a narrow doorway eclipsed by a burly security guard in advance of the hordes, but having focused their lenses on the stage, news cameramen swung them about to film the human tsunami as the floodgates finally opened.

When Musk eventually appeared, he seemed diminutive against the wide expanse of the projection screens, which showed a slowly rotating Mars globe at centre. His style was hesitant and understated. He was here “to make Mars seem possible,” he said, at an estimated trip price of “$200,000 per person”. His proposed system included a reusable booster rocket and tanker for the launch and in-orbit refuelling of a reusable spaceship for the trip to Mars. The plan relied on the production of propellants on Mars to avoid transporting them for the return trip.

Comprising many such spaceships, the “Mars Colonial Fleet would depart en masse,” he said, with a hundred people on each ship. He felt that was “the right order of magnitude,” but “ultimately” could increase to “more than 200 people per flight”, and he expected it to take “40 to 100 years to achieve a fully self-sustaining civilisation on Mars”. Following a video of a typical mission, Musk announced that what he’d shown was “actually quite close to what we will build”. The film was “not an artist’s impression,” he proclaimed, “but made from SpaceX CAD models”.

Having stunned his audience with a slew of statements that could have been quotes from Clarke, Asimov or Bradbury, Musk uttered a throwaway line that reeked of crass absurdity: “In some ways it’s not that complicated really”.

So why is it conceivable that Musk might actually realise his dreams? It’s about track record. Forgetting for the moment that, in parallel with SpaceX, Musk developed an electric car with sports performance and twice the range of existing vehicles, and built a solar power company, the timeline for space developments is impressive. Following three failed attempts, SpaceX launched its first, single-engined, Falcon 1 rocket in 2008; the nine-engined Falcon 9 followed in 2010; and the Falcon Heavy, made from three Falcon 9s, will debut in the coming months.

Over the same period, SpaceX has become a major commercial launch supplier, entrusted by leading satellite operators to launch $300m spacecraft to geostationary orbit, and by Nasa to launch cargo to the International Space Station. Under a Nasa agreement, it is currently refining its Dragon capsule to deliver crews to the ISS. Meanwhile, the company’s engineers have perfected the control techniques required to land the Falcon 9 first stage either at the launch site or on a floating platform in the Atlantic, with the intention of refurbishment and reuse.

In just eight years (plus previous design and development activity), SpaceX has proved that a private company can do what only governments have done before, and do it cheaper; it has demonstrated commercial nous in breaking into cargo delivery and technical wizardry in finding the holy grail of rocket reusability.

Space arks to colonise Mars – that’s a bit of a stretch, isn’t it? With that in mind, Musk began an analysis of the engineering involved. Yes, the cluster of 42 Raptor engines at the base of the vehicle looks like a cover illustration for a science-fiction novel, but there are 27 engines on the Falcon Heavy, said Musk, so it’s not such a leap, and the cluster design allows several engines to fail without compromising the mission. The propellant design is simpler than the Falcon, he said, in that there are “only two types, not four as with Falcon 9”. Showing a propellant analysis chart, he explained that methane and liquid oxygen could be used for main thrust, attitude control and stage separation, and, by the way, the rocket would be able to deliver four times the payload of the Apollo-Saturn V to orbit

However, Musk held the real ‘delivery’ on technology until the end of his talk. With a strong implication that he had pushed his team to the limit, he admitted that he “wanted to show we’d made some hardware progress before this presentation”. He first revealed a video of a successful firing of the new Raptor engine, which is clearly a significant step in the design, manufacturing and testing of the vehicle’s main powerplant.

Then he showed an image of a prototype propellant tank for the vehicle, made from carbon fibre, which dwarfed the five people placed for scale in front of it; the tank had, he said, passed its initial leak test. Although the significance of such a development may have been lost on the majority of his audience, this picture was the money-shot for engineers. Many will recall Lockheed Martin’s failure to develop the composite tanks for Nasa’s X-33 spaceplane project with their maximum dimension of 9m; they may have missed Boeing’s announcement last year that it had succeeded in building a 5.5m composite tank. Although he didn’t quote dimensions, Musk’s new tank is estimated to be at least 12m in diameter.

Of course, an engine that has fired once and a tank that doesn’t leak under laboratory conditions does not make a launch vehicle; years of further design and manufacturing are required to form the vehicle, while a battery of ground and eventually flight-tests must be conducted to qualify the vehicle for the orbital delivery of cargo and people. “If things go super-well it might be in the ten-year timeframe,” said Musk, while admitting that some of his previous expectations had been too optimistic.

But Musk is a joined-up thinker and designs his programmes to feed into each other. SpaceX will be gaining experience in going to Mars while the new project is under development: Musk expects Dragon 2 to go to Mars “in a couple of years” and, from 2020, he said, “we’ll be sending a spacecraft to Mars at every [26-month] launch window”. Meanwhile, if previous announcements are anything to go by, the 17in touchscreen featured in Musk’s Tesla S will be used for the Mars capsule and his solar-power and battery technologies will be applied to spacecraft developments.

Confirming that his other companies are but means to achieve a greater goal, Musk revealed that “the reason I’m personally accumulating assets is … to make life multi-planetary”. Indeed, he expects his spacecraft system to be able to “land anywhere in the solar system”.

Clearly, the development of a large reusable Mars transporter will cost more than even a billionaire of Musk’s class can afford. In fact, it was recently revealed that had SpaceX suffered a fourth Falcon 1 failure in 2008, it would have been all over for Musk’s multi-planetary aspirations. As part of his presentation, he said that funding would come from launching satellites, delivering cargo to the ISS and probably some Kickstarter funding. But ultimately, he said, “it will be a huge public-private partnership,” which is, he added, “how the United States was established”.

Like Bill Gates announcing Windows or Steve Jobs at the iPhone launch, Elon Musk’s IAC event may grow to be recognised as a seminal moment in the development of commercial spaceflight and planetary exploration.

Significantly, although only about 2,000 space professionals and 2,000 students experienced Musk’s speech directly, today anyone can view it on the internet - just Google “Elon Musk IAC Mars video”.

On a personal note, I interviewed Musk at the 2005 IAC in Japan, five months before his first failed attempt to launch a Falcon 1. Ostensibly, he was just another wannabe rocket man hoping to break into a specialised commercial market, but when asked why he was interested in space he used the term “multi-planet species” three times in a few minutes. I left the meeting with a few good quotes and the opinion that he was, at best, a dreamer. Boy, did I underestimate Elon Musk! I won’t be doing that again - which is why I think I’m back with a chance of seeing people on Mars in my lifetime.

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