Detailed Information About Elon Musk’s Mars Plans

A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)
A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)

Below is a detailed summary of Elon Musk’s talk on Tuesday.

Why Go to Mars?

  • Need to establish a civilization of Mars to ensure continuation of human race
  • If we stay on Earth, we risk all life being wiped out in a catastrophe
  • Colonizing Mars is different from Apollo because it’s about minimizing existential risk to human and having a sense of adventure
  • We could go to the moon, but Mars is much better suited for human life
  • Can grow plants on the surface, higher gravity than the moon
  • Can eventually terraform the planet
  • Terraforming would take a long time and be up to the citizens of Mars

Interplanetary Transport System (Credit: SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System (Credit: SpaceX)

Interplanetary Transport System (ITS)

  • Launch vehicle is 49.5 meters in height, 17 meters in diameter and 121 meters in height
  • Passenger ship carries 100 people to Mars initially, up to 200 people eventually
  • Booster and spacecraft made of carbon composites
  • 42 Raptor engines on first stage and 9 on passenger ship with autogeneous pressurization (no helium system)
  • Raptors powered by densified methane and liquid oxygen
  • Methane won out over hydrogen after an extensive study; cost of storage is lower
  • Engines can be throttled down to 20 percent
  • Booster can lift up to 550 metric tons (expendable) and 300 metric tons (reusable) to low Earth orbit
  • Spacecraft refueled in orbit by a tanker
  • Targeted reuse: 1,000 uses per booster, 100 uses per tanker, 12 uses per passenger ship
  • ITS would be assembled at Florida launch site
  • Parts could be built in multiple states, including Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans
  • Propellant depots would allow ITS to travel to locations such as Jupiter, Saturn, Europa and Enceladus
Upper stage of Interplanetary Transport System with passenger area. (Credit: SpaceX)
Upper stage of Interplanetary Transport System with passenger area. (Credit: SpaceX)

Flights to Mars

  • Launch from Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center and possibly from Texas coast spaceport later
  • Booster stage returns to launch site for reuse
  • 3 grid fins and landing legs on booster for landing (Falcon 9 has four landing legs)
  • Passenger ship refueled in Earth orbit by tanker
  • Assembly a fleet of passenger ships in Earth orbit every 26 months and send them to Mars
  • 6 km/s Mars departure velocity
  • 90 to 150 days travel time to Mars
  • Reduce travel times to ~30 days in the future
  • Trip to Mars will be “fun and exciting” with zero gravity games, restaurant, etc.
  • Passenger ship refueled on Mars from propellant plant that makes fuel from carbon dioxide in martian atmosphere
  • Thinking of naming first ship to Mars “Heart of Gold” in honor of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • plan is have 10,000 trips over 40 to 100 years to get 1 million people to Mars
Interplanetary Transport System (Credit: SpaceX)
Interplanetary Transport System (Credit: SpaceX)

Cost & Timeline

  • Current optimistic cost estimate of getting humans to Mars if $10 billion per person
  • Need to get cost down to $200,000 per person to make it workable
  • Estimated ITS development cost is $10 billion before it begins to generate revenues
  • Development will take about 10 years if things go super well
  • Produce 1st development vehicle in 4 years and begin suborbital tests
  • Might use technology to deliver cargo point to point on Earth in about 25 minutes; not counting on it
  • Flight to Mars in 2024 possible; if SpaceX doesn’t make that window, then a flight not too long after that (launch windows comes every 2 years)
  • SpaceX will develop as much as it can using profits from launch industry
  • Rest of cost to be covered by public-private partnership
  • Expects support to snow ball once SpaceX proves that humans can reach Mars
  • Might or might not get NASA contracts for ITS; would be better if it did
  • Musk said his collection of assets have been focused on getting humans to Mars
Raptor engine specifications (Credit: SpaceX)
Raptor engine specifications (Credit: SpaceX)

The Risks

  • High chance of fatalities on the first human flight to Mars
  • Those who go to Mars must be prepared to die
  • Musk not really sure if he wants to go to Mars – he wants to see his children grow up
  • If Musk went to Mars would need to have succession plan set up in case he dies on voyage
  • Spaceship can serve as own abort system during launch from Earth
  • On Mars, rocket has to work due to the thin gravity
  • Some risk from radiation with a slight increase in incidences of cancer
  • Radiation shielding will be needed during the trip to Mars
  • Mars atmosphere provides additional radiation protection once people are on the surface
  • Not worried about planetary protection; there’s no sign of life on the surface of Mars
Raptor engine hot fire. (Credit SpaceX)
Raptor engine hot fire. (Credit SpaceX)


  • Raptor engine fired for the first time
  • Thanked teams for working 7 days a week to fire engine in time for conference
  • Musk surprised Raptor didn’t blow up during first test firing
  • Raptor development was partially funded by U.S. Air Force contract
  • Carbon fiber tank completed
  • Less than 5 percent of company working on ITS with tens of millions being spent
  • Will ramp up spending to about $300 million per year
  • In 1.5 to 2 years, most of the engineering team will be working on ITS
  • SpaceX will demonstrate autonomous docking capability next year using Dragon spacecraft
  • Musk briefed NASA senior management prior to IAC presentation
Red Dragon enters Mars atmosphere. (Credit: SpaceX)
Red Dragon enters Mars atmosphere. (Credit: SpaceX)

Red Dragon

  • Plans to send series of Red Dragon spacecraft to Mars surface beginning in 2018
  • Chance of success for first Red Dragon landing on Mars is only about 50 percent
  • One key goal is to determine location of martian water, how to access it, and what purification it might need to make it safe to drink
  • Learn how to transport and land large payloads on Mars
  • Characterize potential landing sites, including identifying surface hazards
  • Demonstrate key surface capabilities on Mars

Strange Q&A Questions

  • Having just returned from Burning Man, Aldo asked: “Is this what Mars is going to be like, just a dusty, waterless shitstorm….Are we going to have a toilet on Mars that doesn’t use water?”
  • Dick Rocket (aka, Comic Book Guy) said Musk was the greatest and tried to give him a comic book about the first man on Mars.
  • Lara asked if she could give Musk a good luck kiss on behalf of all the ladies (she didn’t).
  • Producer for Funny or Die website pitched his upcoming show and said  that actor Michael Cera was most deserving of a one-way trip to Mars
  • Questions asked about antimatter and interstellar travel






  • The situation in the auditorium seemed to be pretty chaotic. There were reports of overcrowding and invasion by non-press people and laymen who shouldn´t have been there. The event had the typical chaotic imprint of a latin country (I live in one, in case someone calls me a racist or something 🙂 . Organization wasn´t top notch so I guess these people asking/commenting off-topic shouldn´t have been given a mic. Don´t know… it was a weird QA

  • MachineAgeChronicle

    This is not happening for so many reasons. Although long expected, it turns out Musk is bonkers.

  • Well, he has the most efficient rocket engines in the world, and he is building a SSTO spaceship. That alone is going to move things forward remarkably.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    Just some crazy math to start out with. The SpaceShip gets launched empty and unfueled. How many FH launches to carry enough methane / LOX to fill the tanks ? Then, you need multiple launches to carry those 100 people, and their food, clothing, and other essentials. 15 launches just to carry 100 people, assuming a fully loaded Dragon. Then maybe another 15 launches to carry logistics ? And assume the passengers don’t want to wait months in LEO waiting for everyone to arrive means they need to launch everyday, if not twice a day. I think Musk needs to go back to worrying about killer robots or zombies.

  • Aerospike

    Someone didn’t watch the presentation but tries to do “math” based on wild assumptions…

    Falcon Heavy and Dragon have no role in the ITS architecture!

    How this plan is supposed to work was clearly shown in the animation:
    crew ship launches (with crew), booster returns to earth and launches again with the tanker within the same day!

    Although Musk hinted in the presentation/Q&A, that the real order of events may be different:
    -) Crew ship launches empty and waits in orbit (or possibly with supplies but without crew)
    -) Tanker launches to completely fill up the crew ship (potentially multiple launches)
    -) Crew launches, transfers to the Ship bound to Mars and off they go.

    There is not a single Falcon9, Falcon Heavy or Crew Dragon launch involved in this plan.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    Well, since the passenger ship never returns to Earth, and is re-fueled by a fuel depot, I made some assumptions. How does everyone get on board a ship that NEVER returns to Earth ?

  • Steve Ksiazek

    SSTO on Mars, not from Earth.

  • Aerospike

    again: apparently you didn’t watch the full presentation.

    The ship IS supposed to return to earth (how else could it be reused 12 times?).

    Disclaimer: I’m not saying that Musk has found the holy grail of interplanetary travel and that everything will work out as he envisions it. I’m merely repeating what he presented!

  • Hug Doug

    The BFS would eventually return to Earth, landing the same way it does on Mars. If there is a passenger transfer flight, that particular one would deorbit and land on Earth after bringing the passengers to the one that is going to Mars.

  • Aerospike

    Musk hinted that the Ship could possibly reach orbit “if you strip everything out” (that isn’t needed), but that it then would not be able to return.
    He also hinted that the tanker would likely be able to reach orbit alone (but arriving there empty in this case of course).

    So basically what some people have been claiming for years (and been ridiculed for doing so): combine ultra lightweight construction (carbon fiber in this case) with high efficiency engines and you can create an SSTO.

  • Hug Doug

    The IAC has been meeting periodically for many years, this may be the first time a wider audience has had an interest in it, I think that really caught them off guard.

  • Oscar_Femur

    We’ll see. All graphics at this point.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    It could reused 12 times, for 12 trips from LEO to Mars and back. I don’t need to watch Elon Musk’s full presentation. It was neatly summarized in the article.

  • Aerospike

    I agree (with the exception of Raptor and a ginormous CF Tank :D).

  • Aerospike

    Well that’s the thing with summaries: they don’t include all the details. 😉

  • That was not my understanding. If it were not for the fact that it has to be build up as an airframe, it is easily SSTO. The Falcon 9 Full Thrust (F9FT) is easily SSTO capable as well. So there.

    Certainly he will test the BFS before the BFR booster.

    Look at my icon. There are many ways to herd a cat.

  • Steve Ksiazek

    How many engines are on the first stage again ? 42 ? Are those just there for show ??

  • mlc449

    Right now, for SpaceX, it’s all about learning as much as possible, in as tight a timescale and with little money as possible. Everything they’re doing is all about accruing the knowledge needed to perfect a regular passenger transportation service between Earth and Mars.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    I’m going to stay away from whether or not this is possible and if I am wrong, I’m sure there will be plenty of people eager to correct me. Musk wants to colonize Mars in the relative near term and is building a rocket to make it possible. That’s good. It will take a lot more than a rocket to colonize Mars, however and there are a couple of large details he left out.

    The first is that Mars has no magnetic field to deflect the solar wind. As a result, anyone and anything on the surface is subjected to more hard radiation than people (and most machines and building materials) are built to withstand. This leads to a second point. The radiation at the surface has sterilized the ground making it unsuitable for growing crops. Anything grown on the surface of Mars will have to be grown in pressurized domes with tons of nitrogen fertilizer imported from Earth (unless they intend to eat a lot of potatoes fertilized with their own waste.) Aside from domes for crops, and they will need a lot of them, they will need even larger domes for people, and factories, plus the tools to create what they need.

    A rocket is a nice start but until all the technologies are mature enough to support a colony, it is insufficient. Musk can’t do it all himself.

  • ReSpaceAge

    Isn’t that why he made his speech? To get people on board? Shouldn’t Nasa be doing the hab research? You know, making living and working in Space and on other planets cheaper and safer? Musk said he may build this thing in Mississippi too. Lol You know to make it easier on the district’s when they cancel SLS.

  • Terry Rawnsley

    He made the speech because he wants people to think he’s the world’s greatest inventor, greatest rocket scientist, deepest thinker and greatest dreamer. Who knows? Maybe history will one day see him as such.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    As Musk said, and you mentioned previously, the ridicule comes from getting to orbit, but having no payload to show for it.

    Reaction Engines have already solved the SSTO problem with SABRE – collect LOX from the atmosphere up to 25km and save 30% off take-off mass. Personally, I prefer two stages and a whopping big payload. As far as I can tell the attraction of single stage is purely aesthetic.

    Do you see any particular advantage to SSTO?.

  • No, that is not why he made his speech.

    And Elon Musk was pretty humble while doing it btw..

  • windbourne

    300 tones to LEO.
    That is just perfect, IFF the price is low.
    And the only way to get that price low, is to repeat launch regularly.

  • windbourne

    I wonder how they will do the mars trip in 30 days?

  • Aerospike

    Sorry for the late reply, I did not have time to sit down a few minutes and think about your question until now.

    I used to be a huge SSTO fan, but the more I learn about the challenges of getting to Orbit, the more my preference shifts towards TSTOs. So I agree with you.

    Wishful thinking and aesthetics aside, let me try to come up with some “advantages” of SSTOs.
    One thing that comes to mind is the fact that a SSTO does not have any staging events. This means on the one hand there are less things that can potentially go wrong and on the other hand this also means that there is less integration work that has to be done before each flight.

    But even that “simplicity” is not necessarily true for all SSTO designs. Just think about how SABRE has to switch from open to closed cycle mode and you end up with something that can potentially go wrong just like a staging event – but I think Skylon could probably abort at that point and either return to launch site or make an emergency landing while a TSTO that fails to separate its stages is probably doomed in most cases.

    You see that I struggle quite a bit to come up with potential advantages of SSTOs. 😉

    I think part of my earlier preference for SSTOs comes from that fact that I automatically replaced “SSTO” with “spaceplane” in my head most of the time and therefore implicitly assumed full re-usability.

    Maybe re-usability of two staged vehicles à la SpaceX and Blue Origin will mean the end of all SSTO fantasies? (unless some form of propulsion that is more efficient than chemical rockets is discovered.)

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    Thanks for the reply. There’s little doubt that the perceived “extra” complexity of two stages is in reality pretty much matched by the complexity inherent to a viable single stage design. The problem for ssto is that the costs are no better than tsto and the payload capacities are woefully worse. I reckon, best case scenario for Skylon is $50,000 per seat and $170/kg for cargo, whereas for BFR/BF-LEO it’s about 2-4 times cheaper per seat and may be 25 times cheaper for cargo.

    The big problem for any architecture is development cost and then the flight frequency conundrum. The only way to get the high flight rates that introduce truly useful economies of scale into manufacturing costs is to have low per kg and per seat costs. That said, where a vehicle like Skylon does win out, is on comfort – both a ascent and re-entry g forces are half that of a standard tsto. There will no doubt be a market for “luxury” vehicles, but that won’t be viable until the market is opened up by “economy” vehicles.