Elon Musk says early Mars missions will establish crucial cargo routes
Elon Musk has revealed just a few more details about his plan to start colonizing Mars within the next decade. Musk gave a slightly more thorough timeline of all the Mars missions his company plans to conduct over the next few years, all of which lead up to SpaceX’s first planned crewed mission in 2024.
Basically, SpaceX aims to conduct its first Mars mission in 2018, and then send at least one mission to Mars every two years for the foreseeable future.
These upcoming missions are all about "establishing a cargo route to Mars," Musk told the Post. Any colony on the Red Planet is going to need additional supplies delivered over time, such as more food or replacement hardware. But the window to send cargo to Mars only opens up every 26 months, when Earth and Mars are closest to each other in their orbits.
Musk said SpaceX plans to send a mission to Mars every two years during this window, so that they can start creating a reliable cargo route. "You can count on it. It’s going to happen every 26 months. Like a train leaving the station," said Musk.
The first step in establishing that route will be SpaceX's Red Dragon mission. In 2018, SpaceX plans to launch an updated version of its Dragon spacecraft to Mars in order to test out ways to land heavy objects on the planet’s surface. The Red Dragon is meant to use onboard engines to help lower itself down to the Martian ground gently.
If successful, the capsule would be the largest vehicle ever to land on Mars. That means it’s going to need a very powerful rocket to launch it to the Martian surface in the first place. SpaceX’s solution to that is the Falcon Heavy, a much larger and more powerful version of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket. The Falcon Heavy hasn't actually flown yet, but the company promises the vehicle will make its debut later this year.
In 2020, Musk said the company plans to launch at least two Dragon spacecraft on top of two Falcon Heavy vehicles, according to the Post. Companies and organizations will have the opportunity to load these capsules with experiments to test out on Mars, according to Musk. Then in 2022, SpaceX will launch its mysterious Mars Colonial Transporter.
That’s the vehicle that will supposedly house future astronauts on their six-month journey to the Red Planet. People are meant to ride on the MCT for the first time in 2024, with a landing scheduled for 2025. That first mission won't have too many passengers, however, "because if something goes wrong, we want to risk the fewest number of lives as possible," Musk told the Post.
We still know very little about the MCT, or most of the particulars about these Mars colonization plans. For now, it’s hard to scrutinize Musk’s plans without those specifics, but the dates alone are enough to be skeptical. Basically, SpaceX thinks it can beat NASA to putting people on the surface of Mars.
(NASA plans to land people on the Red Planet by the 2030s.) That’s incredibly ambitious for the company, given it hasn’t even flown people into space yet. SpaceX also hasn’t yet landed the Dragon capsule using the vehicles onboard engines. And we still don’t know how the company plans to keep people safe during the journey to Mars. How will it shield travelers from deep-space radiation, for example?
Perhaps we will get more answers in September, when Musk plans to reveal most of the details about his Mars colonization plan. The CEO promises people won't be disappointed with what he has to say. "This is going to be mind blowing," he told the Post. "Mind blowing. It’s going to be really great." Still, it seems that SpaceX has very little room for error if it’s going to meet the ambitious timeline that the CEO has laid out.