In a talk at the 67th International Astronautical Congress held this week in Mexico, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk finally unveiled technical details of the space mission architecture that would allow humans to build a permanent, self-sustaining colony of 1 million people on Mars and ultimately enable humans to routinely explore the entire greater Solar System.
In terms of space travel, Musk said humans have two possible directions. "We stay on Earth forever and wait for the next extinction event. I don't have an immediate doomsday prophecy, but eventually, history showed us, there will be such an event. The alternative is to become a spacefaring civilization and a multi-planet species, which, I hope you agree, is the way to go."
He outlined the long-term technical challenges that need to be solved first and said he hopes that first flights of roughly 100 people and their cargo will start launching toward Mars in 2024.
Although he envisions humans living in a large colony on Mars and possibly terraforming the planet, he added that one key issue will be getting the cost low enough to attract customers. This is the main obstacle many skeptics emphasized following his talk.
"You can't create a self-sustaining civilization if the ticket price is $10 billion per person," he said. "Our goal is to get it roughly equivalent to the cost of a median house in the United States, about $200,000."
"I'm personally accumulating assets in order to fund this," he said, adding that "ultimately this is going to be a huge public-private partnership."
The first step is a massive reusable Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), SpaceX's privately funded development project formerly known as Mars Colonial Transporter.
Interplanetary Transport System. Video courtesy SpaceX
Once ready, SpaceX intends to fly to Mars about every 26 months when Earth and Mars are favorably aligned.
Musk said there would be no guarantee of survival for anyone signing up with SpaceX for the "incredible adventure" of a trip to Mars. "The risk of fatality will be high. There's no way around it. Basically, are you prepared to die, and if that's OK then you're a candidate for going," he said.
Full presentation. Video courtesy SpaceX
This is just one of several private and government-funded missions to put people and cargo on Mars and other destinations beyond Earth's orbit.
In 2018, SpaceX plans to launch its first unmanned spacecraft to Mars - Red Dragon. The mission is designed to test the descent, entry and landing systems.
In exchange for flight data, NASA will provide deep-space and Mars communications relays and consulting services.
Featured image credit: SpaceX