By Elizabeth Howell
Elon Musk, the billionaire entrepreneur behind the private spaceflight company SpaceX, says he will unveil his concepts for Mars colonization later this year.
In an “Ask Me Anything” session on Reddit Monday evening (Jan. 5), Musk told readers that the details of his Mars Colonial Transporter would be unveiled by the end of the year, and that the plan would be different from the Dragon capsules and Falcon 9 rockets SpaceX is flying today.
“The Mars transport system will be a completely new architecture,” Musk wrote in the Reddit AMA. “Am hoping to present that towards the end of this year. Good thing we didn’t do it sooner, as we have learned a huge amount from Falcon and Dragon.” [SpaceX’s Plan for Mars & Reusable Rockets (Video)]
The goal will be to send 100 metric tons (110 tons) of “useful payload,” he added. “This obviously requires a very big spaceship and booster system,” Musk said.
This year, SpaceX will also reveal plans for spacesuits that will meet both design aesthetics and utility requirements, Musk noted. Although he did not specify where the spacesuits would be used, it is possible that they could form the basis for future Mars exploration.
A rocket landing at sea
SpaceX is the first private company to deliver cargo to the International Space Station, which it did for the first time in 2012. The company has a $1.6 billion contract to provide 12 delivery missions to the station for NASA. A second company, Orbital Sciences, has a $1.9 billion deal with NASA for eight delivery missions.
Elon Musk founded SpaceX, where he is both CEO and chief designer, in 2002 with the goal of flying people in space. Last September, NASA picked the company as one of two firms to fly U.S. astronauts to the station beginning in 2017 under a separate contract. (Boeing was the other company selected.)
SpaceX’s next flight to the space station, its fifth delivery flight so far, is set to launch at 4:47 a.m. EST (0947 GMT) on Saturday (Jan. 10) from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. During that mission, a Dragon resupply ship will launch toward the station, and SpaceX will also attempt to land the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket on an “autonomous spaceport drone ship” in the Atlantic Ocean. The mission was initially set to launch on Tuesday (Jan. 6), but a last-minute rocket issue delayed the flight.
While Musk discussed space travel possibilities that extend far into the future, he also mentioned some of the systems that the company is currently developing, including the reusable rocket test this week.
In response to a question about the planned Falcon 9 first-stage rocket landing, Musk said the stage would use “mostly gravity” to stay on the robotic ship, with “steel shoes over the landing feet as a precautionary measure.”
Previously, Musk had said there was a 50 percent chance of mission success. But when he was pressed by a reader as to how he came up with that percentage, he said, “I pretty much made that up. I have no idea.”
Musk did write that the innovative “hypersonic grid fins” on the rocket are vital for the landing attempt.
“The grid fins are super important for landing with precision,” he wrote. “The aerodynamic forces are way too strong for the nitrogen thrusters. In particular, achieving pitch trim is hopeless. Our atmosphere is like molasses at Mach 4!”
Musk also suggested that SpaceX could work on making the second stage of the Falcon 9 reusable, as the company is attempting to do with the first stage, but he said the resources would be best suited for a mission to Mars. In the meantime, he is working on making the rocket as light as possible. [Red Dragon: Mars Mission Idea with SpaceX Capsules]
“With sub-cooled propellant, I think we can get the Falcon 9 upper stage mass ratio (excluding payload) to somewhere between 25 and 30. Another way of saying that is the upper stage would be close to 97 percent propellant by mass,” Musk wrote.
How to live like Elon Musk
One reader asked how Musk is able to learn so quickly. “I do kinda feel like my head is full!” he responded. “My context-switching penalty is high, and my process isolation is not what it used to be.”
“Frankly, though, I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can,” he added. “They sell themselves short without trying. One bit of advice: It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details, or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”
Musk also answered questions, ranging from the mundane (he gets six hours of sleep a night) to what games he plays (the Kerbal Space Program).
And aside from Mars, readers wanted to know what other places in the solar system would be good to explore. One reader asked if Jupiter’s icy moon Europa should be a target.
“There should definitely be a science mission,” Musk said.