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 revolution—Space 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 Space.com 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 Planet—but 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.
“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.
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 Mars—and 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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