Elon Musk and Mars: What's the Plan for Space X?

Elon Musk likes to think ahead. It's how he's made his company, Tesla Motors, worth more than Ford. Musk tries to think ahead of the people who are trying to think ahead.

So far ahead that Musk's newest obsession involves taking humanity into the stars, and to Mars specifically. Musk believes that Earth is essentially a ticking time bomb. It may not explode any time soon, but an extinction-level event is bound to happen eventually. 

The surest way to ensure humanities survival is to fulfill our next manifest destiny, to become a spacefaring and interplanetary species.

The first planet to colonize on the docket is Mars, and here is how Elon Musk is planning to do it. But first...

Why Mars?

Elon Musk and Mars are considered synonymous now but it wasn't always this way. The first question Elon Musk is typically asked is why Mars? His answer is a practical one.

In terms of viable options of planets to go to, we have Venus, Mercury, and some of the moons of Saturn or Jupiter. 

Venus is not doable because its high-pressure atmosphere is essentially a "hot acid bath" for humans. Mercury would be too close to the sun and Saturn and Jupiter, uninhabitable gas giants in their own right, are too far away from the sun. 

Earth's own moon could be viable but Musk argues that it lacks a planet's atmosphere and size. Not only would it be more difficult to terraform, we would eventually run into the same space issues as we have on Earth given the moon's size.

And so Mars it is. Mars actually has a favorable atmosphere for humans in comparison. NASA has discovered that Mars contains sulfur, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, carbon, and phosphorous, some of the key components to sustaining life

These are essential factors in sustaining life and the fact that Mars has them makes it a more viable planet to eventually populate than any other in our solar system.

Still, Mars is as ambitious a destination as any we have known as a species. Unmanned missions to the red planet have been few and far between, which makes what Musk is proposing all the more revolutionary. 

So how exactly does Elon Musk propose to accomplish this?


Founded in 2002 by Elon Musk, SpaceX has existed to fulfill the dream of making humans an interplanetary species. SpaceX has been revolutionary just by existing, being the first privately own company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft.

Where before space travel had been both dictated and funded solely by competing governments, SpaceX paved the way for private industry to join the fray.

To date, the company's most significant achievement happened just a few months ago with the launch of the Falcon 9. The launch marked the first time a first stage booster was able to be reused after having been launched before.

This achievement could be huge in terms of making space travel more affordable by significantly lowering launch costs.  

To date, this is the company's biggest step toward making a manned mission to Mars a reality. 

Interplanetary Transport System

Abbreviated ITS, Musk's plan centers on this reusable rocket and spaceship as the key to not just traveling to Mars but being able to take people to and from the red planet. 

The ITS will use the largest rocket ever built, SpaceX's Raptor engine, a 400-foot tall monolith of power. The Raptor, which is still currently in development, would be able to lift a capacity of 550 metric tons which would be more than three times NASA's most powerful model. 

It's going to need every ounce of that lift because the ITS will be the tool required to launch the enormous spaceship that will hold 450 tons of cargo and the 100 people lucky enough to be counted as the first citizens of Mars. 

The ITS would exit earth's orbit and then launch this spacecraft to continue its long journey to Mars. The ITS would then travel back down to earth so it could be deployed again for the next mission within 20 minutes of its launch

The ITS rockets will have a lifespan of 1,000 launches each.

Once launched into space, the 50-meter long spaceship will hang around in orbit until Earth and Mars align optimally, something that happens every 26 months. 

Elon Musk eventually envisions 1,000 ITSs each carrying 100 passengers launching at these intervals simultaneously. This estimation would bring the population of Mars up to 1 million people within the next 100 years.

The Spaceship

The spaceship will be built to hold 450 tons of cargo and 100 passengers. The six vacuum-optimized Rocket engines will carry these passengers at a speed of 19,014 mph.

The journey to Mars is estimated to take around three months. Elon Musk boasts that the passengers will have a great time enjoying those three months with an on ship movie theater, a pizza shop, and lots of zero-G games.

Once the ship arrives in Mars' orbit, the landing will be tricky but doable according to Musk. The ship will deploy its heat shields to help the ship break but Mars' scant atmosphere will make creating the amount of friction needed to truly slow the ship to a stop difficult

The true power will come from supersonic retro-propulsion which will fire the spacecraft's rockets directly at the planet in order to slow the ship down. This will require an immense amount of force because the ship will be extremely heavy.

Mars' gravity is one-third that of Earth's, however, so that will be a helpful factor in mitigating the weight factor. Still, the landing will be dicey and a lot of development is required till the kinks will all be worked out.

This is probably why Elon Musk predicts the first launch is still awhile off, 2023 at the very earliest. 

The Plan

In essence, the plan is simple enough. The STI will launch into orbit and then the actual spaceship will launch from there. During its journey to Mars, it will be refueled by tankers already positioned in strategic areas.

Once the ship is landed, equipment to begin manufacturing the fuel that will enable a return journey to Earth will be deployed.

Elon Musk wants to use the abundance of dry ice and water vapor on Mars in order to manufacture methalox–a substance that will fuel the rocket for a return journey. 

Musk predicts that the first mission will be unmanned and will set the groundwork for the first pioneers to have space to live and work in. From there the colony only has to grow larger with more and more ships making the journey from Earth. 

Simple, right? Perhaps not.

The Challenges 

Many challenges remain. Elon Musk paints an informative picture of how to get to Mars and back but is a little vague about how to make the planet a viable place for a large number of humans to live. 

The extreme low pressure of Mars' atmosphere would make life on Mars impossible without a pressure suit, no matter how much oxygen you might be receiving from a mask.

A magnetosphere would also need to be established in order to shield the planet from ultraviolet that could prevent water from being immediately turned into hydrogen and oxygen. 

A magnetosphere is also required to shield astronauts from this increased level of radiation. Deep space is peppered with energized particles, originating from either solar flares or cosmic rays, and the radiation from these particles can be harmful to anyone exposed to them.

Earth's magnetosphere has helped shield astronauts who have traveled to the moon or the space station before but no such atmosphere exists on Mars. 

NASA has said that discovering an effective shield to this radiation is one of the challenging aspects of devising a manned mission to Mars. 

Some of these issues can be solved if the atmosphere is heated in order to reproduce the Greenhouse Effect that sustains our atmosphere on Earth.

However, this will take a very long time and the ability to terraform the planet will be an end game that even Elon Musk sees as far off.

For now, the mission is to get people to Mars and establish a station where more people can be able to join.

The Money Issue

This is the biggest issue Elon Musk chose to highlight about the colonization of Mars. As of now a trip to Mars will cost each passenger around $10 billion. 

Seeing as there are just over 2,000 billionaires in the entire world, the cost of a ticket to Mars puts a bit of a damper on Elon Musk's dream to colonize the entire planet.

Musk claims that the price of a ticket must be lowered to the median cost of a family home in America, around $200,000. This would give the project a low enough cost of an entry to truly recruit the number of people required for a full-on colonization effort. 

To do this SpaceX needs to figure out a way to reduce the cost of shipping one ton of weight to Mars by five million percent.

So where to cut costs?

1. Refill in Orbit

If the spacecraft did not refill in orbit with strategically positioned tankers, a ship five to ten time the size of the ITS with a three-stage launch would be required. 

Also, using the ITS method of launching the spaceship in orbit will lessen the required lift capacity. This will help to lower development costs and reduce the overall timetable to the project's completion. 

2. Mars-based propellant 

Reusability is a huge key to make this project affordable. Elon Musk plans to be able to reuse whatever equipment is built for multiple purposes.

Musk wants to use the same rocket people used to arrive on Mars to leave it. He also wants to fuel the return trip with fuel made from natural resources native to Mars. 

The main fuel resource would be methane, a substance which can be synthesized on Mars using its subsurface ice and the abundance of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere. 

SpaceX would eventually want to establish a methane farm on Mars that would make the production of the fuel for the return journey to Earth readily available. 

Also, the reduced amount of gravity a ship launch from Mars would mean the ship would not need a booster like the ITS to leave its atmosphere.

The first mission to Mars by SpaceX would carry with it a small propellant plant that would be used for the return trip. Eventually, these plants will expand in size and scope.

3. Private and Public Funding

Musk has maintained that SpaceX will not be able to fund this project alone. SpaceX has already relied on a number of partnerships, most notably NASA, to fund many of its previous endeavors and will likely seek more in order to fund this new one. 

SpaceX has also ventured into other markets in order to raise its profits as a company. Recently SpaceX announced its plan to launch 4,425 satellites into orbit with the ultimate goal of beaming broadband internet to billions of users across the globe. 

This is a risky endeavor given the barrier of entry to the satellite broadband market. However, the gamble could pay huge dividends if the company is successful.

SpaceX is already a pioneer in the reusable rocket market and they are currently positioned as the lowest-cost launch operator in the industry, which gives them a great advantage.

The Next Step

The next step in this long process will happen in 2018 when SpaceX plans to send one of its unmanned capsules, the Red Dragon, to Mars in order to test some of the company's technology on Mars itself. 

Most significantly, SpaceX will test supersonic retropropulsion as a viable method to land a spacecraft moving at high velocity onto the planet. 

From there the company plans to continue its testing until 2023, when, according to Musk, Mars flights will potentially begin in earnest. 

It's safe to say that, if nothing else, the dream of populating the red planet is still a long way off. But we're closer than we have ever been before.

The benefits of space travel are innumerable. Many see space as the next frontier for our collective species to conquer. Others see it as the only real means of expansion and eventual escape from a slowly dying world. 

Either way, it's clear our future will be found amongst the countless stars our species has looked at in wonder since the dawn of our age.