Ask any expert and they will tell you that SpaceX will not be the first to take a man to Mars. This is quite a strange consensus since Elon Musk founded his space technologies company for that exact purpose. He can even be caught repping the tagline, “Occupy Mars,” across his T-shirt as he walks around his state of the art facility.
“Stop fighting, WWIII would ruin our Mars mission.” -Elon Musk
After making a fortune on PayPal, Elon decided to focus on technologies that he believed could change the world. However; SpaceX has even higher aims than the Earth.
As of now, SpaceX is the leading distributor of cargo to and from the International Space Station and is heavily involved in satellite deployment.
But why can’t SpaceX be the first to Mars?
History for one…
Almost every explorative mission in human history has been funded by a government; which really means taxpayers. (For NASA, this is less than 1 penny on every tax dollar.) This was the case when Columbus sailed across the Atlantic, when Louis and Clark traveled into the western United States, and when Neil Armstrong took his famous first step onto the Moon. It takes a government to decide that the cost of exploration is outweighed by the potential for advancement. There was almost no business case for these past explorations, but governments thought them worth the risk.
If there was a mission to Mars, it would likely be a collaborative effort by many countries like the International Space Station. And it should be, it would be a hugely uniting force to have people across the world working on and cheering on the same team.
To date, the furthest a SpaceX rocket has traveled is about 25,000 miles above our heads to geostationary transit orbit (GTO); from there it is another 35 million miles to Mars. Which is quite a bit further.
SpaceX, most simply put, is a transportation vehicle for cargo and eventually passengers into orbit. Of course, since NASA and other space programs often use commercial rockets to transport cargo to space, SpaceX would undoubtably be hired to transport the ship, the cargo, or even the astronauts off of the Earth’s surface.
No matter how you slice it, escaping Earth’s gravity is still the single most difficult and expensive part of any mission.
Even with modern advances, it costs about half your cargo’s weight in gold to transport anything into space (NASA’s estimate is around $10,000 per pound). Basically, if we found a planet of pure gold, we wouldn’t bother.
SpaceX is solving this cost problem with reusable rockets.
We have all seen the videos of rockets lifting off into space and detaching piece by piece untill only the small capsule is left. Before SpaceX, all the detached stages of theses rockets would fall back to Earth and be destroyed.
Seems absurdly dangerous and wasteful…
But, SpaceX has created a system for these rockets to float back to the earth and land using controlled rocket bursts.
On the 8th of April 2016, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Cape Canaveral, delivered supplies to the international space station, and then safely landed itself on a drone-ship in the Atlantic. It was a feat straight out of science fiction.
However, it was a long road to accomplishing this goal of landing safely. Here is a look at a less successful attempt.
Returning the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket allows SpaceX to save up to $50 million per launch. Elon Musk hopes that, with this technology, his company can soon drop the cost to only $500 per pound to orbit.
SpaceX may not be the first to take a man all the way to Mars but they will be the key to taking that first step in a long journey. In the real world, it always comes down to cost and SpaceX is taking steps towards revolutionizing space transportation by reducing that cost up to 100 fold!
At the tip of the Falcon rocket is the Dragon 2 lander/transport capsule. This is where the payload of each mission is kept and this capsule is the only one of its kind capable of returning samples to Earth after docking with the International Space Station. A successful landing test of the Dragon 2 only a few days ago has SpaceX hopeful for an unmanned landing on Mars as early as 2018! Propelled by the Falcon Heavy rocket system, the Dragon 2 capsule is designed to be able to land on any celestial body in the solar system.
If the “Red Dragon” mission is able to reach Mars in 2018, the next step would be to return rock samples from the red planet to Earth for study. This would be a huge accomplishment and would add significant value, both scientific and financial to the mission. And after SpaceX masters the robotic mission, they have plans to take astronauts to Mars in a passenger version of the Dragon capsule.
With all this said, SpaceX is still a contracted supplier of these systems by the US government or any other government who choses to be involved. Elon Musk himself often comments that SpaceX would not be possible without public funding and support from NASA.
There have been hundreds of ideas for funding a manned trip to Mars, from making the astronauts stars in a reality TV show to mining rare Martian minerals, but the cost is still to great to be done without government involvement.
SpaceX may be the first private company to reach another planet and push the limits of human exploration, but the American people will be paying the bill.
Mankind is curious. We have always wondered what was over that next hill; almost as if we are searching for someplace lost. But it will take more than curiosity to take mankind to the red planet. For us to continue to explore the final frontier, we will need to have purpose; the demand must outweigh the cost. For now, robots are capable of doing most of the exploring for us so it is difficult for NASA and other agencies to push for human exploration off planet. But robots won’t capture the imagination of an entire planet, and there is so much more to learn from taking those steps towards inter-planetary colonization. If the earth is truly dying, it is only a matter of time until your address will include: “planet of residence.”
Someday, perhaps even Elon Musk himself will step foot on the dusty, red surface of Mars.
“I think it would be great to be born on Earth and die on Mars. Just hopefully not at the point of impact.”
– Elon Musk