A Monday story in Space.com quotes SpaceX CEO Elon Musk as claiming that his company has made “progress” toward the eventual establishment of a private colony on Mars. He cited the recent “soft splashdown” of the first stage of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle in the Atlantic. It was a test toward the goal of flying back the first stage and having it land near its launch pad to be refurbished and reused.
Musk has made no secret that his ultimate life goal and the purpose of his space launch company has been to establish a colony on Mars. In fact he has been quoted as expressing the wish to die on Mars, though not, he hastens to add, “on impact.” It was a dream he has held even before he founded SpaceX.
The trick is developing a space transportation system that would link Mars and Earth that would be cheap enough to operate for a private company. Most estimates for a single Mars expedition have range past $100 billion, beyond the range of all but the wealthiest governments. That is where SpaceX’s experiments in making reusable launch vehicles come into play.
Part of the transportation system Musk envisions would be a super heavy lift rocket that would be far beyond the capabilities of even the Falcon Heavy, the launch vehicle the company is planning to come on line in a year or so. It would be comparable to the Saturn V or the planned NASA Space Launch System.
The vehicle would be a Mars Colonial Transport, as yet loosely defined. It would be a system that would eventually be able to “be launched frequently to send millions of people and tons of cargo spaceward.” Each launch of the MCT would take a hundred people to Mars at a time. The cost per each person would be $500,000. It is unclear whether this includes just the passage to Mars or whether it also includes housing on the Red Planet once the passenger arrived.
The key to getting travel to Mars so cheap is twofold. First the Mars Colonial Transport would be reusable and cheap to operate. The second is that the voyage for most of the passengers and their luggage will be one way. This would not be a voyage of exploration, but of pioneering. The passengers would be going to Mars to stay and make new lives. Musk claims that the new super rocket would be ready in 10 to 12 years.