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Musk muses on middle-class Mars colony

Technology ready for $500,000 round trip

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SpaceX boss Elon Musk has said that later this year or in early 2013 he will announce a plan to offer flights to Mars and back for half a million dollars, hopefully within the next decade.

In an interview with the BBC, Musk said that the final pieces of the plan had now been sorted out, and he was confident SpaceX could set up a reusable rocket system that could fly to the Red Planet, land, refuel, and return safely within cost. His ultimate goal is to set up a self-sustaining colony on Mars to ensure the continuing spread of the human species.

"Ultimately we could offer round trips to Mars that the average person could afford – well, let's say the average person out there who had acquired some savings. The threshold is approximately half a million dollars. Essentially, a middle class person could sell all their stuff on Earth and move to Mars if they want to."

Mars is the only shot at a habitat that's sustainable for mankind in the Solar System, he explained. The Moon, while closer, has no atmosphere, very little in the way of mineral resources, and scarce water. Even getting there and back takes a sizable proportion of the fuel that would be needed for a Mars mission, he said, since the Martian atmosphere can be used for braking maneuvers that are impossible with the Moon.

Mars has the potential to become an Earth-like environment for humanity over time, he remarked, although the process would be difficult, to say the least. The planet is, however, rich in iron oxide, suggesting metals would be relatively easy to come by, and appears to have large reserves of usable water. The trips could start in a best case of ten years, worst case of 20, and he anticipates getting started in 2024, with the costs falling over time.

There's more to it than rocketry, however. The trip would take about six months, and the human cargo would have to be protected. Musk suggested that a column of water pointed at the Sun would provide protection from solar storms for passengers, but did not give further details. But first, the transportation had to become recyclable.

The "Holy Grail" he said, is to build a rocket which is totally reusable and could lift mass into orbit for around $10-20 per pound. The Space Shuttle costs around $10,000 per pound, but next year Musk plans to cut this to $1,000 per pound using SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, which can lift 53 tons per launch. This kind of economy was possible because of technological advances in design, avionics, engines, and launch operations, he said – although some of those came from NASA itself.

"If you think of any mode of transport, whether it;s a plane, train, car, horse, bicycle, they are all really reusable," he said. "If you had to buy a new plane every time you went somewhere it would be incredibly expensive. A 747 costs around $300m – and you'd need two of them for a round trip – and yet people aren't paying half a billion dollars to fly from LA to London, because that 747 can be used tens of thousands of times over."

When pressed on specifics, Musk declined to elaborate. The technologies involved haven't even been patented, he said, because this would put them out in the open and patents are basically unenforceable overseas. He specifically mentioned this in reference to China, which he sees as SpaceX's chief competitor in the space race.

Using current technology, SpaceX was proving to be profitable he said, and the company has been in profit for the last five years. SpaceX has received large contracts from the US government, as well as private vendors, for orbital delivery to the International Space Station using the Falcon 9 rocket and the Dragon capsule, the latter of which is still awaiting full testing. The Falcon Heavy – if it works – will be the most powerful orbital booster available and will drive huge economies of scale, he said.

Science would also have a role, and Musk said that a Mars base would be a bonanza for scientists looking to understand exobiology, planet formation, and geology. But the ultimate goal is to get humanity off a single planet to ensure the continuation of the species.

Musk said that while at university he had decided upon three areas to work towards. The first was the internet, with the development of PayPal giving him the finances to pursue a sustainable energy system and interplanetary colonization. He didn't expect to be in a position to do much about the last point in his lifetime, but technological advances have made it a realistic goal.

"The most important thing is to ensure that we preserve the future of humanity, and we do everything we can to ensure that human civilization will last as long as possible," he said. "The longer we last, the more we'll learn and the more we'll discover. I'm most concerned with securing the longevity of humanity." ®

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