SpaceX founder unveils plan to send 80,000 people to Mars

Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of the private spaceflight company SpaceX, has announced an ambitious plan to colonize Mars by shuttling 80,000 pioneers to the Red Planet at a cost of $500,000 a trip. The first phase of the program, which is contingent on the development of reusable rocket that can take off and land vertically, would start off modestly with only a handful of explorers leaving Earth at a time. But in short order, the self-sustaining population could grow into something far greater.

The announcement was made by the billionaire Musk to an audience at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London on November 16. He was there to talk about his business plans and to receive the Society's gold medal for helping to advance the commercial space industry.

Writing in Space.com, Rob Coppinger reports on the details:

Accompanying the founders of the new Mars colony would be large amounts of equipment, including machines to produce fertilizer, methane and oxygen from Mars' atmospheric nitrogen and carbon dioxide and the planet's subsurface water ice.

The Red Planet pioneers would also take construction materials to build transparent domes, which when pressurized with Mars' atmospheric CO2 could grow Earth crops in Martian soil. As the Mars colony became more self sufficient, the big rocket would start to transport more people and fewer supplies and equipment.

Musk's architecture for this human Mars exploration effort does not employ cyclers, reusable spacecraft that would travel back and forth constantly between the Red Planet and Earth — at least not at first

"Probably not a Mars cycler; the thing with the cyclers is, you need a lot of them," Musk told SPACE.com. "You have to have propellant to keep things aligned as [Mars and Earth's] orbits aren't [always] in the same plane. In the beginning you won't have cyclers."

Musk came up with the $500,000 price tag claiming that it would be within the means of most people in advanced countries — what would be akin to purchasing a new home. He estimates that the entire program would cost about $36 billion, an expense sheet that would likely have to be offset by government and private enterprise:

"Some money has to be spent on establishing a base on Mars. It's about getting the basic fundamentals in place," Musk said. "That was true of the English colonies [in the Americas]; it took a significant expense to get things started. But once there are regular Mars flights, you can get the cost down to half a million dollars for someone to move to Mars. Then I think there are enough people who would buy that to have it be a reasonable business case."

To make it happen, SpaceX has already started to work on their next-generation reusable Falcon 9 rocket. The prototype, called Grasshopper, is a Falcon 9 first stage with landing legs. This rocket has already made two short flights, including one in which it reached a height of six feet (two meters), and another in which it leaped to a height of 17.7 feet (5.4 meters).

Musk is hoping to have a functional first stage version of the rocket finalized around 2018, but admitted that those could be "famous last words."

Read more at Space.

Image: Space.