SpaceX: To Mars and Beyond
Humanity faces two options: expand our presence beyond the boundaries of Earth to become a spacefaring species or wait until an inevitable cataclysmic event wipes us out of existence. SpaceX, a private rocket and spacecraft company founded by Elon Musk, looks out to the cosmos to circumnavigate such a doomsday event. The company is currently developing the technologies necessary for deep space missions, with plans to ultimately colonize Mars. However, space exploration remains complicated. SpaceX experiments with breakthrough technologies in an attempt to solve technological complications not even the experienced team at NASA have been able to figure out, and there is much left for the company to accomplish before humans are ready to explore the solar system.
When John F. Kennedy announced the initiative to launch humans to the Moon, people felt inspired to reach further than any previous generation. NASA’s Apollo program had benign intentions, but interestingly, its success can actually be traced back to the geopolitics of the Cold War era. The same rocket technology that allowed humans to ascend and walk upon another heavenly body could also transport the thermonuclear weapons belonging to the global superpowers. Essentially, Cold War politics provided the conditions that enabled federal funds to flow without much friction into NASA, allowing for the astronomical success of the Apollo program. It was a matter of superpower rivalry and planetary survival. However, since the end of the Cold War, NASA’s funding, and therefore their ability to manufacture and operate grand human exploration missions in deep space, has substantially decreased. If humans are to become interplanetary, then Elon Musk’s vision for SpaceX must find a way to inspire students and investors to reach further than any previous generation to walk this planet.
SpaceX has already captured some of the public’s imagination, but many refuse to take the company seriously. Elon Musk acts as the company’s founder and CEO, as well as the Lead Designer. He claims he created the company to help aid in developing the technology humans will need to reach and colonize Mars, eventually becoming an interplanetary species. The company focuses on reaching maximum reusability in their systems, including reusable rocket boosters and reusable spacecraft. The company’s goal: launch, land, and relaunch massive rockets and spacecraft.
As the space industry stands today, rocket launches are expensive. Most of the technology developed for each mission is used solely for that mission, destined to become “space-junk” forever afterwards. SpaceX hopes to eliminate this problem by creating reusable systems, and on several occasions, they have already proven their capabilities with such technologies. After many failed attempts and subsequent lessons learned, the company successfully landed the core stage of their Falcon 9 rocket booster vertically back on planet Earth via propulsion technology. This event marks a milestone in space exploration technologies, and even though the company has yet to reuse one of their landed rocket boosters, the day one ascends and lands again will mark an even greater milestone.
It’s safe to say SpaceX still has much to learn. Even if they achieve full reusability with their final Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy systems, they will still lack the launch capacities a full-scale mission to Mars requires. However, in a presentation titled “Making Humans a Multi-Planetary Species” at the 2016 International Astronautical Congress in Mexico, Musk outlined SpaceX’s architectural approach for such a mission. If built, it will involve the largest single rocket booster ever constructed and a reusable spaceship capable of transporting up to 100 passengers to the surface of Mars.
Of course, there are many steps left to take before SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) is fully constructed. The company is currently gearing up for Block 5 of the Falcon 9 systems, the rocket model with maximum fuel efficiency and reusability, planned to begin launching in 2017. And they still need to prove that their propulsive landing technologies are capable of safely landing payloads on a planetary surface, which SpaceX plans to prove in a series of missions to Mars dubbed Red Dragon, scheduled to begin in 2018. Nonetheless, promising tests are already being carried out on all of these systems, which will eventually converge at a point to where constructing the largest rocket system seems like the next logical step.
SpaceX’s Interplanetary Transport System will theoretically put deep space missions to Mars and other destinations throughout the Solar System within our reach. The ITS will consist of a powerful, fully reusable two-stage system. The core stage will support 42 Raptor engines, making the rocket almost three times more powerful than the Saturn V rocket that lifted people to the moon. The reusable rocket booster will be capable of launching either 450 tons of cargo or a 100 passenger spaceship to reach deep space destinations within the Solar System. It’s rather clear that such a system would bring childhood space fantasies closer than ever to becoming a reality.
Every 26 months, the orbits of Earth and Mars bring the planets within closest proximity to each other. If that time is used wisely, this means there is a two-year window to launch mission payloads into orbit before the moment arises for the fleet of spacecraft to depart towards the Red Planet. Once they prove their deep space capabilities through the initial Red Dragon missions, SpaceX plans on launching a single 450-ton cargo ship to the surface of Mars, most likely transporting a refueling station so that future missions will have the fuel to return to Earth. If successful, the company plans on doubling the number of cargo and passenger ships departing for Mars en masse with every successive Earth-Mars rendezvous, creating an exponential and reusable system. Musk claims SpaceX’s goal is to reach 1,000 colonial spaceships and a Martian colony with 1 million people within the next 40-100 years.
The Interplanetary Transport System’s design allows for deep space exploration of the entire Solar System, not just the planet Mars. The molecules for its chemical fuel source, Cryo-Methalox, can be sourced from Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, it can be found on an abundance of moons throughout the solar system, and even further beyond in objects throughout the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud towards the outer edge of our solar system. If we strategically develop refueling stations and outposts throughout the solar system at such destinations, the capacity for humans to explore and settle the solar system becomes nearly limitless.
Perhaps SpaceX is the giant leap mankind has been waiting on since Neil Armstrong first stepped onto the surface of the Moon. America went from the Moon, to the orbital Shuttle Program, to relying on the Russian government to reach the International Space Station, a clear downward trend. The space industry has been in steady decline, but SpaceX seems to have other plans for the industry. If they accomplish full reusability, the cost of human space exploration could actually become economically viable for the first time in human history. Once we can afford to go to space, what happens next? Do we explore the frontiers for the sake of discovery? Or do we fight over territory and resources like we have always done on Earth?
The exploration of outer space is a quest to understand our place in this vast expanse of space and time. The planets and the stars are places for us to explore and understand. We’ve landed on the moon, and we cooperatively conduct research in an international laboratory orbiting 250 miles above the surface of the Earth. With our advanced telescopes, we have mapped our solar system, our galaxy, and most of the observable universe. We even have two robotic spacecraft which have explored and left the solar system entirely, destined to sail the interstellar seas for the next billion years. Yet, as a species, we are still confined to our planet of origin.
For me, the exploration of space is a rather humbling experience. I can’t approach the vastness of the Cosmos without coming to grips with how precious my borrowed time truly is in the grand cosmic scheme of things. This perspective inspires a motivation to explore, experience, and understand all that I can about the cosmos, and our place within it. When the time comes, I hope that our wandering species can finally spread throughout the solar system, eventually claiming our place among the stars. So far, SpaceX has the most successful launch portfolio of any space organization, and if their successful trends continue, there is no doubt that their Interplanetary Transport System will transform us into a spacefaring species.
Ian McLeod currently lives in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado. He is naturally curious about the world around him and enjoys long mountain hikes, creative culture, and all things science and science-fiction. He is currently pursuing a science degree at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs, Colorado.