By Douglas Messier
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.)
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.