GUADALAJARA, Mexico — Elon Musk’s Falcon 9 is grounded after, for the second time, one of the rockets blew up. The maiden flight of the more powerful Falcon Heavy has been delayed again and again.
But Musk, never one to shy away from grand pronouncements, introduced SpaceX’s conceptual plans here Tuesday for a rocket and spacecraft designed to start a “self-sustaining city on Mars” that he said could be achieved within 40 to 100 years.
In an hour-long speech titled “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species” at the International Astronautical Congress here Tuesday he said his goal was to “make Mars seem possible. To make it seem like it’s something we can do in our lifetimes. That you can go.”
Musk, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal, who also runs Tesla Motors, knows how to attract attention, and thousands of people packed the conference hall here, cheering on his much-hyped and long-anticipated presentation.
Wearing a suit and open collar, Musk stood before a large orb of Mars that over time morphed into a habitable planet with oceans and greenery. And he showed a tantalizing video of the rocket taking off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida with 100 people on board, refueling in orbit and then landing on the surface of Mars.
The design of the Mars rocket shows that it is a towering 400-feet tall, far more powerful than the Saturn V that took the Apollo astronauts to the moon.
He acknowledged the immense, if quixotic, challenge he was undertaking would begin not just with creating a spacecraft that could keep dozens of humans alive for extended periods but with producing rocket fuel from the resources on Mars. And he acknowledged the difficulties of lowering the cost of the flights from $10 billion a person to $200,000 or less, in part by reusing rockets to fly repeat missions ferrying lots of people.
But less clear was how SpaceX would pay to get to that point, and outside of the technical details of the rocket and spacecraft he offered few specifics on how a city on Mars would get built.
“In terms of the presentation today, I was particularly keen to learn about [research and development] costs, venture capital and other investments, returns on investments, manufacturing costs, and why and how one sustains a population on Mars,” said Phil Smith, a space analyst at the Tauri Group, a consulting firm. “Musk did provide some insight into manufacturing costs, pricing, and sources of funding, but I need to study those to see if they are realistic.”
Musk said he would “make the biggest contribution I can” of his own wealth, and at one point he joked that the company might have to use Kickstarter, the online fundraising platform, to raise money.
“As we show this dream is real ... I think the support will snowball over time,” Musk said.
He said ultimately it would have to be a “public-private partnership” but while NASA is partnering but offering no funds on a first SpaceX mission, it has its own plan to get to Mars by the 2030s. Budget limitations could make even the agency’s mission difficult.
Musk has also outlined an incredibly ambitious timeline, starting with the first launch of an unmanned craft as soon as 2018. That mission would be on the Falcon Heavy, which has yet to fly. And he conceded that he isn’t “always the best” at hitting the aggressive timelines he lays out for his dreams.
Getting to Mars is exceedingly difficult. On average, it’s 140 million miles from Earth, though the planets come to within about 35 million miles of each other every 26 months. Even under the best circumstances it takes months to get there, Musk said SpaceX could do it in 80 days and eventually in 30.
The deep space environment can also be tremendously harsh. Of the 43 robotic missions to Mars, including flybys, attempted by four different countries, only 18 have been total successes
At a news conference later, Musk said that finding the cause of the Falcon 9 failure was “absolutely our highest priority” and that SpaceX is focused on flying astronauts safely. The Mars mission, for now, is a secondary or tertiary consideration, he said, that is taking up a small percentage of the company’s resources.
The explosion followed a previous Falcon 9 failure last year, when a rocket blew up a couple of minutes into its flight. The Falcon 9 remains grounded while the investigation continues, meaning SpaceX’s government and commercial customers have to endure yet another costly delay.
Still, while the plan may remain in the realm of science fiction, Musk has reignited interest in space, inspiring another generation of enthusiasts who believe in
Musk’s vision. One of his questioners even asked if she could come up on stage to give him a “good luck kiss.”
“Musk’s Mars vision, if realized, would be transformational for all humankind,” said Alan Stern, a former NASA official and leader of the New Horizons mission to Pluto. “And given his talents, drive, and many past accomplishments, I wouldn’t bet against him.”
In a statement, NASA said: “NASA applauds all those who want to take the next giant leap — and advance the journey to Mars. We are very pleased that the global community is working to meet the challenges of a sustainable human presence on Mars.”
While NASA has not flown people beyond what’s known as low Earth orbit in decades, Musk and the New Space movement he leads has proven that space no longer is the exclusive domain of governments. Several companies are currently pursuing their own visions of space travel.
Musk said SpaceX’s spacecraft, with its huge windows, would make the trip an adventure.
He talked lightly about how the journey has “got to feel fun and exciting. It can’t feel cramped.” He said there would be games passengers could play in zero gravity and a restaurant on board as it sped at 62,634 mph to Mars.
John Logsdon, the former director of George Washington’s Space Policy Institute said that Musk has become bigger than SpaceX. “His job is to provide inspirational leadership not just for SpaceX but for the larger space community,” he said. “There hasn’t been someone like that for a very long time.”
Joel Achenbach contributed to this report.