Has Mars Man Musk Pivoted to the Moon?

A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc

Partway through an appearance at the International Space Station R&D Conference on Wednesday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk dropped a bombshell into a conference room at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC.

“If you want to get the public real fired up, I think we’ve got to have a base on the moon,” he said. “That would be pretty cool. And then going beyond that, getting people to Mars.”

Whaaaat? For a billionaire who has been laser focused on establishing a new branch of humanity on Mars, the mere mention of a detour to the dusty old moon seemed almost sacrilegious somehow.

What the hell has happened since Musk laid out his bold vision for transporting a million people to Mars at a space conference in Mexico only 10 months ago?

The short answer: reality has set in.

Everything about the plan Musk presented last year — the rocket engines, the spaceships, the martian settlement — was ginormous in its scale and ambition. You’d have to go back to the Martian exploration plans proposed by Wernher von Braun in the 1950’s to find anything comparably ambitious.

The only small things about Musk’s proposal were the initial price tag (~$10 billion) and the timeline (first human mission in 2024.) And that’s where the problems began.

Although many people were inspired by Musk’s vision, the talk left many others puzzled. ‘Huh? Well, that was uh… interesting,’ they thought. ‘But, what’s this really going to cost? Who’s going to pay for it? How long will it actually take? And where’s the return on investment?’

The cost issue loomed large over everything else. Musk’s career has been marked by a series of ventures (SpaceX, SolarCity, Tesla, satellite Internet) whose purpose is to provide sufficient financial resources to fund his Mars settlement dreams. These ventures have not gotten Musk there yet.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has been heavily dependent upon government development funding and service contracts.  The same would be true for the company’s push toward Mars.

Musk made it clear that although he is devoting as much of his financial resources as possible to his Mars plan, the effort would have to be a public-private partnership to get off the ground.

That’s where another harsh reality has crept in. Although NASA officially has a Journey to Mars plan aimed at getting humans to the Red Planet in the 2030’s, the space agency doesn’t really have the budget to make that a reality.

Further, NASA appears to have shifted its focus to the moon under the new Trump Administration. It has plenty of potential partners for such a venture: every other major space agency in the world is also focused on exploring our nearest celestial neighbor. Commercial startups also are eying the moon’s mineral and water resources.

Unable to convince any governments to fund his Mars dream and lacking the money to pursue it himself, Musk appears to be following the money to where it appears to be heading.

That doesn’t mean Musk has abandoned his Mars dream. Far from it. He said he has been busy at work revising the architecture he presented last year to make it smaller (but still large) and much more economically viable.

Musk said he believes he will have the new architecture ready for a presentation at the International Astronautic Congress meeting in Adelaide, Australia at the end of September.

Part of the plan would be modify the martian transportation architecture for Earth orbit missions that would provide SpaceX with the financial resources to pursue its Mars plans, Musk said. (Although he didn’t say so specifically, the architecture could presumably serve NASA’s lunar needs.)

Farewell, Red Dragon! We hardly knew ya! (Credit: SpaceX)

One casualty of SpaceX’s evolving plan is a series of Red Dragon missions the company planned to launch to Mars beginning in 2020. The program would test landing techniques and deliver supplies for human missions set to begin later in the decade.

However, Musk said he is no longer convinced that the type of propulsive landings planned for the Red Dragon missions were the best technical approach forward.

“Plan is to do powered landings on Mars for sure, but with a vastly bigger ship,” Musk tweeted later.

SpaceX also has abandoned its plan for propulsive ground landings of  the crew Dragon vehicle the company is designing to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Musk said it would be an immense effort to certify the crew vehicle to meet NASA’s safety standards for human spaceflight.  As a result, the Dragons will now splashdown in the ocean.

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  • Stephen L. Thompson

    My biggest issue with Musk has been his obsession with Mars, which doesn’t make any sense to me. If you want humanity to be a spacefaring civilization, then you need things in space that make money: mining fuel and precious metals on asteroids, building solar power satellites, or flying tourists to the moon. These things will cost money in the beginning, but will then start making money. Landing a bunch of people on Mars and hoping they can figure out how to grow their own food and mine their own resources before the money runs out for their resupply ships, never seemed that bright of an idea.

  • Douglas Messier

    Agree completely.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Sources inside and outside SpaceX were talking about sub-scale BFR/BFS shortly after the IAC announcement last year. So the move to do something closer to Saturn V scale was already baked in the cake. The IAC size is the minimum threshold scale for mass Mars colonization according to Musk, so that is just a stake in the ground. In the meantime Musk and SpaceX have never been afraid to change course tactically to get to the end goal. So, not surprised if the winds change and they can get someone to pay for moon project, they’ll go for it. At the end of the day they need to get good at building Raptors, RaptorVACs, large composite tanks, ECLSS and Methane RCS, whichever way it goes. Also, on the commercial front a smaller vehicle is way more practical and still has margin for full-reuse while going head to head with Blue’s New Glenn. All in all happy to see some practical paths forward to get the ball rolling on the next gen vehicles. Also, de-scoping Dragon is not all bad, if it gets it in the rear view mirror sooner from the development perspective, where the real fun will begin.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, I agree. Mars is great for science and NASA, but there are no near term private business models for it.

  • Eric Thiel

    Moon business is a good middle point. Makes the transition from LEO to Mars easier.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    The Moon is not scientifically boring. If access becomes easy science will follow.

  • Obediah Headstrong

    Bye bye to all the big ideas Musk had. Human landings on Mars are further away than ever. Shift to the late thirties of this century, just like NASA does.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    You really don’t understand the plan if you have this takeaway.

  • Obediah Headstrong

    I like positive thinking, but reality mostly denies its credibility. Especially concerning space business.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Not about positive thinking. By de-scoping BFR/BFS it is more likely to be built, sooner. And NASA has no plan to go to Mars in the 2030s or any other time.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    Several years ago, Musk said that his plan was to get people interested in space again. A second goal was to create enough fanfare for NASA’s budget to get increased so that NASA could do exploration. Looks like he succeeded in those two goals.

  • savuporo

    “Mars flights leaving on a 26 month interval, every opportunity, you can count on it!”

    Sigh

  • windbourne

    not as much as Mars.
    Mars offers a great deal more.
    But, both have their advantages.
    The moon has near vacuum on the moon, locations that are near 0K, great locations for ground based scopes.
    OTOH, Mars has the possibility (and I would argue probability) of life. A lot can be learned about evolution and the universe from mars.

  • windbourne

    not yet.
    But he is getting there.

  • Sean Dixon

    But from a sales perspective, pitching Mars was the right move for Spacex. Get people hyped and excited about space again, then move to more practical things like moon bases and rotating habs.

  • publiusr

    Even Zubrin seems to be warming to a Moon-first approach these days.

  • Paul451

    (Belatedly)

    If you are interested in searching for life, Mars is a poor cousin to other wetter places, like Europa, Enceladus, etc.

    If you are interested in “learning about the universe”, likewise comets and asteroids are more useful, the moons of the gas giants (as small scale models of planetary formation), and large telescopes (especially at the solar gravitational focus.)

    The moon might give you an extraordinary insight into the history of the solar system. If the surface “farming” of the polar ice deposits (from micrometeorites) is not excessive, then there’ll be a chronologically sorted stratigraphic layering corresponding to comet and wet asteroid impacts. Separated by thin bands from many dry asteroid impacts in between rarer comet strikes. (Unlike volatiles, there’s no preference for dust to settle at the polar regions. But random scattering should still see some depositing; enough to serve as a clear market between comet impacts.)

    I don’t know how long the ice deposits will have been accumulating uninterrupted, but we’re surely talking a few hundred million years, perhaps billions. And if it goes all the way back to the Late Heavy, woof! It’ll be like having a freakin’ time machine. (And surely finding that out is worth more than yet-another-Mars-mission.)

    By comparison, Mars mostly tells you about Mars. It’s interesting, but IMO no moreso than any other major solar system body.