With NASA getting its budget slashed and space exploration a low priority for every politician not promising a moon base should they be elected, it’s easy to wonder who, if anyone, will carry the torch into this new century. It may be that other countries surpass us in the field of space exploration. Or it may be that the race for the final frontier will be pushed forward by eccentric rich folks. Such as, for instance, the “rocket entrepreneur” who believes we could make a round-trip voyage to Mars for as little as half a million dollars.
The wide-eyed dreamer in question is PayPal co-founder Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, who has partnered with NASA to help design new vehicles to transport crew and cargo to the international space station. Musk told the BBC that his Mars claims are supported by recent technological breakthroughs that are making the ambitious trip to the red planet more realistic and financially feasible.
We will probably unveil the overall strategy later this year in a little more detail, but I’m quite confident that it could work and that ultimately we could offer a round trip to Mars that the average person could afford — let’s say the average person after they’ve made some savings.
Musk may have a slightly viewed perspective of “the average person” — most of us don’t have half a million dollars lying around to be spent on a space vacation — but his estimated price tag is still a pittance compared to other Mars-trip schemes. Musk further conceded that his $500k number likely wouldn’t be realistic until the system was 10 to 15 years into its operation.
Part of Musk’s money-saving plans is to create a system that is totally reusable. “Nothing is thrown away,” says Musk. “That’s very important because then you’re just down to the cost of the propellant.” Taking that into account, Musk wants his theoretical Mars craft to be able to refuel for the return trip on Mars itself, thus lowering the amount of fuel it has to carry on the way out.
Not everyone is buying Musk’s sales pitch, however. As the BBC article points out, SpaceX doesn’t exactly have a spotless track record with their previous rocket launches, and certainly not to the point that Musk’s bold Mars claims can be taken without a hefty side of salt. More power to Musk and SpaceX if they really can make this plan work, but the burden of proof is most definitely on them at this point.
In the meantime, SpaceX is planning an unmanned demonstration flight to the space station for their Falcon-9 craft sometime next month. Just like his theoretical Mars craft, the Falcon 9 is designed to surmount one of the biggest price hurdles involved in space launches by being totally reusable. He told the BBC that:
A 747 costs something like $300m and you’d need two of them to do a round trip. And yet people aren’t paying half a billion dollars to fly from LA to London, and that’s because that 747 can be used tens of thousands of times.
We must get to the same position in rocketry … You need to be in the position where it is the cost of the fuel that actually matters and not the cost of building the rocket in the first place.
Image courtesy SpaceX