September 29, 2017 at 2:30 AM
For years, Elon Musk has been focused on building a colony on Mars. That's why he founded SpaceX in 2002, and it’s been the driving force behind the company ever since.
But during a speech in Adelaide, Australia, on Friday morning, Musk said he has dramatically expanded his already-outsize ambitions. In addition to helping create a city on the Red Planet, he said the next rocket he intends to build could be used to establish a base camp on the moon — and fly people across the globe.
“It’s 2017, we should have a lunar base by now,” he said during a 40-minute speech at the International Astronautical Congress. “What the hell has been going on?”
In a surprise twist, he also said his planned massive rocket and spaceship, which would have more pressurized passenger space than an Airbus A380 airplane, could fly passengers anywhere on Earth in less than an hour. Traveling at a maximum speed of nearly 17,000 mph, a trip from New York to Shanghai, for example, would take 39 minutes, he said. New York to London could be done in 29 minutes.
“If we’re building this thing to go to the moon and Mars, why not go other places as well?” he said.
The speech was billed as an update to one he gave a year ago, in which he provided details for how SpaceX would attempt to make humanity a “multi-planet species.”
At the speech a year ago, Musk unveiled a behemoth of a rocket that was so ambitious and mind-bogglingly large that critics said it was detached from reality. Now, he and his team at SpaceX have done some editing, and Musk presented a revised plan early Friday to build a massive, but more reasonably sized, rocket that he calls the BFR, or Big [expletive] Rocket.
“I think we’ve figured out how to pay for it, this is very important,” he said.
The new fully reusable system includes a booster stage and a spaceship capable of carrying 100 people or so. It would be capable of flying astronauts and cargo on an array of missions, from across the globe, to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit and to the moon and Mars in deep space. It would also be capable of launching satellites, he said, while effectively replacing all of the rockets and spacecraft SpaceX currently uses or is developing, making them redundant.
That would allow the company to put all of its resources into development of the BFR, he said.
Earlier this year, Musk announced that SpaceX would fly two private citizens in a trip around the moon by late next year. And he hinted at the moon base during a conference in July.
“If you want to get the public really fired up, I think we’ve got to have a base on the moon. That’d be pretty cool. And then going beyond there and getting people to Mars,” he said. “That’s the continuance of the dream of Apollo that I think people are really looking for.”
It also could be a good business move. Jim Bridenstine, the Trump administration's nominee for NASA administrator, has advocated a return to the moon, writing in a blog post last year that “from the discovery of water ice on the moon until this day, the American objective should have been a permanent outpost of rovers and machines, with occasional manned missions for science and maintenance.”
NASA is poised to ask the private sector for proposals to develop a lunar lander that could take experiments and cargo to the moon's surface, with flights starting as early as 2018. And Jeffrey P. Bezos' Blue Origin has already pitched NASA on a plan to fly a lander there by 2020. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“I think Elon was worried that he was leaving a huge market wide open for Jeff Bezos,” said Charles Miller, the president of NextGen Space, a consulting company. “Competition is wonderful.”
But Friday morning Musk made it clear that Mars is still the ultimate goal. During his talk, a chart showed that SpaceX planned to fly two cargo missions to Mars by 2022, a very ambitious timeline.
“That’s not a typo,” he said, but allowed: “It is aspirational.”
By 2024, he said, the company could fly four more ships to Mars, two with human passengers and two more cargo-only ships.
SpaceX has upended the space industry, and Musk, with his celebrity, bravado and business acumen, has reignited interest in space. The company, which has won more than $4 billion in contracts from NASA, was the first commercial venture to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station; previously it had been done only by governments. It currently delivers cargo there, and is also under contract from NASA to ferry astronauts, which could happen as early as next year.
But despite all its triumphs, the company still hasn’t flown a single human to space, not even to low Earth orbit, let alone Mars, which on average is 140 million miles from Earth (though the planets come to within 35 million miles of each other every 26 months).
The travel between cities on Earth would also face substantial hurdles. In addition to the technological challenges, there would have to be regulatory approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Musk’s speech comes two days after NASA announced it had signed an agreement with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, to study exploration in the vicinity of the moon under a plan called the “Deep Space Gateway” that could, eventually, lead to a habitat near the moon.
Separately, Lockheed Martin unveiled a plan for deep space exploration Thursday, updating its “Mars Base Camp” system, a massive orbiting laboratory. Now the company says it could also build a lander capable of touching down on Mars or the moon. The company said it could launch within a decade in conjunction with NASA.
“The big news in space this week were announcements by private sector companies,” said Bobby Braun, the dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “It really goes to show how much the space sector has advanced in just the last few years. While the timeline and capabilities are certainly ambitious, I'm bullish on U.S. industry's ability to carry out challenging and far-reaching goals.”