A year after revealing to the world his plans to send humanity to Mars, Elon Musk has provided some key updates.
The SpaceX founder and CEO addressed the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia on Friday. During his 40-minute talk, he provided technical details on the system that would take people to the Red Planet and an update on how intends to fund it--in addition to revealing a surprising new use for the system.
Musk also provided a more specific timeline. When he first unveiled his plans last September at the IAC in Mexico, his intended arrival date for humans was 2024. Musk is still sticking with that target date, but there's a new important detail: He wants to land two spacecraft on Mars by 2022. They wouldn't have any crew on board, but would instead be capable of building structures to support life, scouting the planet's surface for hazards, and mining for resources. Humans would arrive two years later. "I think it's quite a beautiful picture," Musk said.
As for the system that will take people there: Musk is still referring to the project as BFR, or Big F--king Rocket. He says it will stand 350 feet high--taller than the Statue of Liberty--and will be able to lift 150 tons into low earth orbit. It will have 31 engines--less than the 42-engine monster he first proposed last year--but still a huge amount. By comparison, Saturn V, the rocket used to get astronauts to the moon, had five.
The spacecraft carrying people to Mars will be 157 feet tall (about 15 stories high) and capable of holding 100 people spread across 40 cabins. There would be various forms of entertainment to help make the 80-day trip more tolerable. A paper Musk published on his plans earlier this year referenced movie theaters, lounges and restaurants for the people on board.
Musk has long expressed the belief that humans will eventually need to populate Mars in order to save the species from dangers like overpopulation, global warming, and artificial intelligence set on destroying mankind. "You back up your hard drive," he said in 2015. "Maybe we should back up life, too?"
The entrepreneur said last year he wants the cost of a one-way trip to Mars to be $200,000 per passenger. The journeys wouldn't be an everyday occurrence, though: Earth and Mars only align within the solar system every 26 months, which drastically limits the window during which SpaceX could make the flights.
SpaceX has its work cut out if it wants to make passenger tickets affordable--or really, if it wants to get to Mars at all. While Musk wouldn't provide a projected cost for the project, it's worth noting that the Apollo program, which sent 12 people to the moon, cost $200 billion in current U.S. dollars.
Musk intends to make the BFR reusable, though, which will significantly reduce the price tag. SpaceX has now successfully landed its reusable rockets 16 consecutive times. "I think we can get to a landing reliability that is on par with the safest commercial airliners," Musk said on Friday.
He added that SpaceX's current satellite-launching business, plus its contract with NASA to service the International Space Station, should be sufficient to fund the Mars project. Once built, he added, the BFR will render obsolete the Falcon 9, which SpaceX currently uses for most launches. "All our resources will turn toward building BFR," he said.
An ambitious (as usual) timeline
Musk said production on the rocket system should begin in the second quarter of 2018.
As usual, Musk's overall timeline is probably overly optimistic. When Musk unveiled his plans last year, Tom Jones, a former NASA astronaut, told Inc. that a more realistic timeline was likely the 2040s. "The biggest thing we've landed on Mars is the one-ton Curiosity rover in 2012," he said, "and that was at the limit of what we could do technologically."
Even so, Musk is pushing ahead. He also spoke Friday about establishing a base on the moon, "Moon Base Alpha," which could serve as a checkpoint between Earth and Mars. Such a station could be key to deep space exploration, since lifting off from the moon's lesser gravity requires less thrust and less fuel. The SpaceX founder expressed disappointment that a project like this isn't in the works already, considering "It's 2017. We should have a lunar base by now," he said. "What the hell is going on?"
An even bigger goal
Toward the end of his talk, Musk revealed another potential use for the BFR system: High speed travel between locations here on Earth. Passengers could board in one city, be taken up beyond the earth's atmosphere, travel 18,000 mph, and land in another city. With this method, Musk said people could transport from San Francisco to Delhi in 40 minutes or Dubai to London in 29 minutes. A video demonstration showed passengers boarding a ferry near Manhattan, then riding out to a rocket on a floating launch pad before being blasted into space--only to land in Shanghai 39 minutes later.
"If we're building this thing to go to the Moon and Mars," he said, "then why not go to other places on Earth as well?"
It all seems pretty far-fetched, but Musk seems intent on making it happen. And after all, he went from a half-baked idea for a company in 2002 to landing the first-ever reusable orbital rocket two years ago.
Check out the video below to watch the BFR take passengers on a high-speed trip across the world.