From ISS to Mars: A SpaceX Odyssey

Dragon capsule COTS 1 CCAFS Cape Canaveral posted on AmericaSpace
SpaceXthe first company to send a spacecraft to orbit and have it return safely to Earth, the first company to journey to and deliver supplies to the International Space Stationappears to be setting its sights on Mars. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian / AmericaSpace

Mars, the world that has transfixed so many for so long, has also apparently captured the eye of the front runner in the commercial space revolutionSpace Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). A number of statements, rumors, and plans have come out of the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company over the last couple years which point to ambitious plans that could open up travel to the Red Planet. If these statements were made by anyone else, they would not be taken as seriously. However, given the company’s penchant for doing exactly what it says it will do, SpaceX’s Martian ambitions have gained serious attention.

SpaceX Founder and Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk told reporter Rob Coppinger that his company has its sights set on the colonization of Mars. He envisions a relatively small group of people establishing a beachhead on the Red Planetbut he expects that number to swell to an estimated 80,000. Under Musk’s plans for Mars, these pioneers would be sent with provisions and supplies needed to construct a transparent dome which would be pressurized to support crew (Mars’ atmosphere is less than one percent of Earth’s and composed primarily of carbon dioxide).

“Elon Musk has always been clear that the long-term goal of SpaceX is to play a role in extending life beyond Earth to Mars and to make humans a multi-planetary species,” said SpaceX spokesperson Hannah Post when asked about the company’s ambitions vis-à-vis Mars. “SpaceX is working towards that goal by designing, manufacturing, and launching the world’s most advanced rockets and spacecraft, which will ultimately make a dramatic difference in the cost and reliability of space travel.”

SpaceX has also been associated in the news with other Mars-based efforts. Dennis Tito’s “Inspiration Mars” project, which aims to have two people conduct a flyby of Mars, initially had some observers tying the millionaire’s proposal to SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. However, the company’s president, Gwynne Shotwell, denied these reports.

SpaceX image of Dragon spacecraft at International Space Station Commercial Resupply Services posted on AmericaSpace
SpaceX has traveled three times to the International Space Station. Photo Credit: SpaceX

“As far as the Dennis Tito flight, I think his plan is very ambitious. We have been rumored to be in partnership with him, which we are not. But we are a launch service provider, and if he can come up with the funding to execute this mission, we’d be happy to have him as a customer,” Shotwell said during the Commercial Resupply Services 2 mission briefing held at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

SpaceX is steadily building a reputation as a major player in the private space industry. The company has completed the $1.6 billion Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract and has since moved on to delivering cargo to the International Space Station under the space agency’s Commercial Resupply Services initiative. To date, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft has launched three times to the space station, delivering an estimated 4,700 lbs of supplies. SpaceX has also begun testing its “Grasshopper” Vertical Takeoff, Vertical Landing (VTVL) rocket, with each successive test sending the prototype higher and higher. Grasshopper is an experimental technology demonstrator, which could prove invaluable in SpaceX’s other space exploration efforts.

SpaceX image Grasshopper VTVL posted on AmericaSpace
SpaceX continues to develop technologies that push the envelope of what is possible. Photo Credit: SpaceX

The company has stated that starting as early as next year, attempts will be made to accomplish a safe landing of the Falcon 9’s first stage off the coast of Florida and then return it for refurbishment. After the company has demonstrated that it can conduct this procedure, they will take the project to the next level.

Through the use of thrusters placed on the Falcon 9’s first stage, this vital element of the launch vehicle will be directed to return to the launch site at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40. It is an ambitious plan, one in a long line of projects that the company has announced, developed, attempted, accomplished, and moved on to the next challenge. It is this history that has provided SpaceX with the credibility needed to state that it will send humans to Marsand be believed.


This article originally appeared in The Mars Society’s The Mars Quarterly. As part of AmericaSpace’s partnership with The Mars Society, our content appears first in The Mars Quarterly – and then here on AmericaSpace.

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  1. SpaceX is a serious company doing great things. Yet, a manned trip to Mars, not to mention a colony’s establishment there costs, will probably be in the order of dozens of billions of dollars. The question is how you attract private investors to invest in such an endeavour, and how you convince them that their investment will be a profitable one and that they will make profit from human trips to Mars.

    • Although you will probably have to suffer the slings and arrows of outrage at having the temerity to raise such an issue, you are exactly right Leonidas. Theoretically, capitalism and free enterprise means an “entrepreneur” convincing investors that they will make return on investment. Wall Street doesn’t care about newspace dreams, wishful thinking, and cheer leading. You’re right Leonidas, despite the howls of indignation, private investors will have to invest tens of billions in hopes of making a profit selling . . . “genuine collectible Mars rocks”? Making profit carrying T-shirts and toilet paper into the ISS in LEO is one thing, making profit creating a colony on Mars is quite another. Just a base on the Moon would be an enormous endeavor. It might prove correct that there are enough billionaires willing to plunk down 1.5 million dollars as a wealthy Russian just did for a sub-orbital joy-ride with Leonardo DiCaprio to make space tourism profitable for awhile, but a “for profit” Mars colonization mission that would interest big money capitalists – not likely. Of course, the American taxpayer could be called upon to subsidize spacecraft for a Mars mission to compete with our Space Launch System and Orion. I would love to see the reaction of Sen. Shelby (R. Al.) to that one. Stand by Leonidas, this post is really going to make it “hit the fan”! 🙂

      • Nicely put Karol! I’m just stating the obvious. Contrary to what people might think while reading my post, I’m not against commercial space enterprises. Quite the contrary. But LEO is vastly different than Mars. It has a huge potential for profit making, but Mars? It’s a different game altogether, and the sooner people realise it, I think, the better (and don’t get me started about Mars One’ announcements, cause I’m only talking about serious space efforts here!). I believe Elon Musk has the best of intentions and has great visions towards Mars, but the reality of space adventuring is that ultimately someone will have to write the check – and we’re talking money here in the orders of dozens of billions of dollars. If manned Mars missions already had huge profit potential, we wouldn’t be talking today of some day a prtivate company getting there – Bill Gates and co would have been already there making money.

      • *eye roll*

        The reality is Karol, all of us realize large scale space settlement, and trips to the surface of mars, will be difficult. AFAIK, this isn’t under dispute.

        The real issue is whether NASA is about space settlement, or about the glorification of NASA. Its whether we view the Space shuttle as a flawed system that had value, or “the greatest most capable spacecraft ever.”

        Fundamental question, which I would be interested in people’s response. Which is of more value – a 20-year old whose focused on becoming an engineer so he can solve the technical challenges, or the 40 year old who is investing his money in a space business designed to open up space?

  2. How to attract private investors

    Is exactly the right question and it has an answer but wimps need not apply.

    Wimps have forgotten that on a frontier you can assert your natural rights and moral obligation to claim territory.

    It’s a moral obligation since wealth is the antidote to poverty and wealth saves lives where poverty kills.

    For just $2b, which Larry Page once offered NASA if they would just show him a reasonable plan, Larry could, by himself alone, finance the first dozen colonists on mars and also get the right to about 6 million half acre plots, secured by possession, for resale to investors here on earth. He would probably only recover about a third of his investment that way, but he would be making the further settlement of mars a possibility by demonstrating what could be done. As costs come down, profits will go up.

    The U.N. is working hard on the meme that space belongs to everybody meaning nobody. I find it hard to imagine they would win this philosophical argument, but they really could.

  3. Or combine the above with another method of financing.

    Throwing in the Mars One reality show you now have a venue for selling those half acre plots.

    Combine that with Bigelow’s Alpha Station 2 month at a time rental plan.

    Any one of these will finance a significant part of a mission. Combine them and it’s a done deal.

    Any non wimps out there with $2 billion?

      • I thought ‘wimps’ was pretty innocuous, but I get your point and will attempt to refrain.

        However, it leaves me with a dilemma. I firmly believe we have a can’t do problem. People think things come from stores. This doesn’t make them wimps of course, but it does make them distinct from people that know the truth.

        Things are made by people or machines made by people. Possibilities are without limit other than our imaginations. The reality being it’s not usually our imagination but the imagination of others we depend on.

        Sometimes, I’m a wimp.

    • Ken, I understand your reasoning, and all the things you’re saying, theoretically could be done. The thing is, that we don’t live in a frontier-advancing society. The world culture of today excibits these characteristics:

      a) Is as risk-averse as possible.
      b) Displays a profound lack of long-term vision, at large.
      c) Is obssesed with immediate profit-making, and as much secured as possible.

      How is space settlement and Mars colonisation fits into that world-view?

      Why should any wealthy entepreneur or Wall Street investor or whoever, invest in Mars settlement, an endeavor where:
      a)the risks are really huge and unquantifiable,
      b)there’s no business model for short-term profit,
      c)there’s no guarantee of mission success, (people might die) and
      d)investors might lose all of their money.

      Capitalism isn’t about just having grand and long-term visions. It’s about narrow-minded profit, plain and simple. If Mars settlement doesn’t have a short-term return on investment, something that you can present and quantify to your board of directors, then it won’t be done with private money. It’s as simple as that.

      I don’t say I agree with that view, I’m just making an observation.

      Plans for Mars settlement and colonisation have been around since the beginning of time (well, more accurately since the beginning of the space age). Robert Zubrin detailed a very realistic and doable plan in the 1990’s, the ‘Mars Direct’. Someone might disagree if that was the best plan, but it was technically sound and feasible. Granted, NASA and the US governemnt chose no to adopt that plan. But I haven’t seen any private investor stepping up to fund the nearly $30-50 billion that it was calculated it would cost, either! ‘Mars Direct’ still remains a theoretical study, joining the long list of similar studies.

      It all sums up to a simple question: If Mars colonisation was such a money-making enterprise for entepreneurs already, then why aren’t we there yet?

      All these aside, my own personal view is that we should be viewing space as a place where we can go and settle. Develop a space transportation infrustructure and go and live wherever we choose in space. But there’s a difference between what I want as a space advocate and what the world at large, wants. The simple fact of the lack of any huge, sustained and long-term public or private investment towards that goal for many decades now, shows how much interested we are as a culture, towards advancing a frontier.

  4. Mars settlement does have a short-term return (less than ten years.) If I had the money I’d risk it and prove it. I can absolutely guarantee you that.

    Demand for most things is generally elastic depending on price. The solution to the problem of something costing a huge sum to do; is have a return made up of so much stuff that selling just a portion of it, for just a little bit each, returns your investment, leaving you holding the remainder to appreciate over time for an even better return.

    Yes, plans have been around for a long time. But, they are the wrong plans! We can do it cheaper and include a ROI element that they don’t.

    We could have the first dozen on mars in 5 to 10 years if we focused. A single individual (well, a rich one) could pay for the whole thing (and has already offered the full amount needed to an agency that doesn’t know what to do with it) but most important would expand and establish a right that has existed for as long as humans have.

    My settlement charter isn’t about individuals making claims. That right has long been firmly established. It’s all about expanding that right to pay for the trip while still limiting some company to a reasonable sized claim for their effort even though they aren’t actually making a claim by direct possession. By tying that claim directly to an individuals direct claim by possession it establishes a new precedent that could have legal weight going forward. We need to do this if we are to expand BEO. Every other choice keeps us tied to the earth.

    To leave the cradle we need to cut the apron strings.

    • Re: short-term return.

      I should clarify. That return can start immediately. It doesn’t have to wait for a landing. It would be similar to Zubrin’s land patent idea except he makes the same mistake many others do. No government can grant the land because they don’t own it (and the OST certainly prohibits that.)

      All the government has to do is not stand in the way of a free market in registered claims (allowed only after a real plan is in place to send the colonists.)

      This real plan depends on just one thing: A successful demonstration of a mars lander with similar or better specs. than the Mars One lander (2500kg and up to four people safely to the martian surface.)

      Elon has stated the price for ea. to the martian surface will be $195m if he keeps his promise. This makes an under $2b for a dozen colonists possible. Which in turn makes a fast break even on investment possible.

    • “A single individual (well, a rich one) could pay for the whole thing”

      Ken, that was what I was trying to say in the first place. I’m a far cry from being a pessimist as a person, but sadly, I don’t see any wealthy individuals seriously interested on Mars settlement. Here’s a wikipedia page of a Forbes list of billionaires:

      Do you think any one of them would be interested on investing in MarsOne, or some other type of plan with some projected ROI?

      And since I mentioned MarsOne, it would be fun to see how that plays out. Personally I see it as a bad joke for various reasons to tell you the truth, but it’ll be fun to watch how it progresses.

      “All the government has to do is not stand in the way of a free market in registered claims (allowed only after a real plan is in place to send the colonists.)”

      Well, I don’t think that governments can get in the way at all, cause per the Outer Space Treaty, they can’t have any claims anywhere in space, so Mars wouldn’t be theirs to lose.

      And since you brought it up, I came upon this the other day on the Space Settlement Institute:

      I found it a rather good idea. What do you think of it?

      “Elon has stated the price for ea. to the martian surface will be $195m if he keeps his promise.”

      I’m excited with what he’s trying to do, but I’ve experienced many hopes being crushed through the years when it comes to space exploration, so I’ll really cheer for him when he starts delivering on his promise. It would be earth-shaking if he does.

      • I think if Mars One’s reality show is wildly successful it will only raise about a third of the funds they seek.

        The Space Settlement Initiatives has a few weaknesses in my mind. The claim size is too large and actually devalues the land. It doesn’t provide provisions for the actual colonists to claim land (but once there they could certainly assert squatters rights.) It requires the colonists to pay there way which is exactly the wrong incentive for heroes risking their lives for all of humanity.

        My plan requires the transportation company to safely transport colonists before they can claim anything and can only claim 1000 sq. km. directly tied to an individual claim.

        The reason I mention Larry Page is because he has already offered $2b for the right plan. Mine is the only plan that gives him the right to sell plots from 12,000 sq. km. (6 million plots) for that $2b. Others are offering him a piece of nothing. He would be instrumental in establishing a property rights precedent that pays for the entire solar system.

        • It’s good to know that we have no shortage of plans and ideas, as space advocates. Space settlement IMHO is inevitable if we want to grow as a spieces and have any meaningful future at all.

          Anyway, thanks for the discussion and input 🙂

  5. We don’t live in a frontier-advancing society.

    But that frontier is out there and we could again.

    People with the qualities to do it still exist.

  6. I think the real market is that people…. all people wish to be free to make decisions for themselves and their families…The current role of government on this planet is one of consolidation of that decision making…This will drive people to other places just like people immigrated to the “New World” …America from Europe…of he first settlers in Plymouth in 1620 80% died in that first winter and now the scientific community has reveled that they resorted to canabilism… So the reasons that we will go is to be free…Someone will find a way a make money out of this as there is only capitalism…

  7. Good article. Nice balance of objective, speculative, questioning.

    I’m not at all sure that anyone will get a Mars mission off the ground but it’s good to see that at least the discussion has started and seems to be ongoing. Articles like this one help immensely IMO.

    If SpaceX is to be believed then they have a plan and have identified the steps they need to go down to achieve it. I believe Elon has mentioned his preference to be a launch and services provider but I guess that’s only a preference and if he has to do more to achieve his desires, he will. If his companies are successful and make him a bundle then that’s gotta help.

    At the very least, it’s interesting to read the ideas and discussion.
    Many thanks.

  8. A launch and services provider is all that is required. Elon wants to sell tickets. That doesn’t give us mars because even if Musk is wildly successful… IT IS NOT ENOUGH.

    Limiting migration by forcing the colonists to sell everything for a $500k ticket (and let’s not forget the over a million dollar each space suite they will need at first) and arrive poor is idiocy. It will not give us space.

    SpaceX is great but something more is required to give us mars. That something more is a willingness to assert rights that have existed as long as humans have. But we even need a small step beyond that. Now is the time to assert the right of a transportation company (which may only buy tickets and never actually own a vehicle) to make claims that are tied to individual claims. They must provide free transportation in order to make claims that result in their profits.

    It takes a marketing company, like Space Adventures.

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