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Musk’s Mission to Mars


Elon Musk provided an update on his quest to colonise Mars at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, where he described a reusable rocket to overcome cost barriers and an ambitious schedule to land cargo missions on Mars by 2022.

“Elon Musk’s vision for human space flight is exciting, timely, and truly fascinating. One hundred per cent reusability of rocket components, refuelling in orbit rather than on a planet or moon’s surface, and using widely accessible and inexpensive fuels like methane and oxygen are major parts of this vision. Space-X has made huge strides towards this reusability this year.

The time lines are very ambitious, including setting the year 2022 for two cargo ships to go to Mars, but 5 years is also a significant amount of time. The Apollo program’s time line was not very different.

If even a small part of this vision can be implemented then Elon Musk and Space-X will allow humanity to make major steps to the Moon, to Mars and beyond much faster than existing plans. Yes, there are undoubtedly major challenges to overcome, including the effects of space weather (e.g. radiation events due to solar flares) and issues with closed life support and maintenance systems, but we should explore the major potential benefits to Space-X’s approach and consider supporting the parts we deem viable and transformational.”

Professor Iver Cairns is a Professor in Space Physics at The University of Sydney and incoming Director of the ARC Training Centre for CubeSats, UAVs and Their Applications.

“Elon Musk is impressive. He shows what intelligence and money can do when they are combined. Notice also that Elon Musk is not a committee.

Reusing and recycling seem to be at the heart of the new approach that Musk is taking. The science behind this is realistic. The unrealistic part – the thing holding us back – has always been finding the political will to invest in space.

Kennedy and the cold war found the money for NASA to get us to the Moon. Musk doesn’t need Kennedy’s eloquence... or rather Musk’s eloquence is in the deep knowledge of the physics and engineering.

Musk’s vision and engineering savvy seem to be able to attract the money to build the BFR.”

Dr Charley Lineweaver is an Associate Professor in the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University College of Science.

“Elon Mask is one big step closer to his dream of making humans multi-planetary species. He wants us to have a better future and to be inspired by the potentials that we have as humans.

Elon is famous for his agile and efficient way of running his companies and bringing truly amazing ideas to life. But the cost of interplanetary travel is one of the main reasons humans have not set a foot beyond the Moon, so Elon Mask’s presentation focused on ‘how do we pay for this thing?’

Space X started in 2002, and their first three rockets failed, having the first successful launch in 2008. Last year they overcame one of the hardest hurdles in the rocket business: landing a rocket on a barge and creating a reusable rocket. This year Space X launched more rockets this year than any other space agency.

But these launches, it appears, were just a practice for something bigger. Space X is working on making their current rockets and Dragon capsule redundant in place of one rocket to rule them all: the BFR rocket. The factory is built, the parts are ordered, and production will start soon.

The reusability is fundamental in keeping the costs down, as well as refuelling by oxygen and methane in orbit. This one rocket will be able to service the ISS, do a return trip to the Moon without local re-fuelling, and reach Mars. It can carry 150 tonnes of fuel, which is more than the biggest rocket so far, Saturn V. The rocket will be able to land to the Moon or Mars by Falcon’s perfected retro-propulsion method.

The first cargo mission with two BFR rockets is planned for 2022, and a human crew mission for 2024, and also setting fuel production on-site.

We have learned to expect the impossible from Elon Mask and Space X, and this time frame is aspirational but does not seem impossible. And this time we were treated with visions of a lunar and Martian base, which makes the whole package even more mesmerising.

And just as you think that is innovative enough, Elon Mask casually mentions that the same rocket will be able to fly us in under an hour wherever we want to go on Earth. What else to say but ‘the future is now’ – and it looks great.”

Dr Jasmina Lazendic-Galloway is a Lecturer in the School of Physics and Astronomy at Monash University.