SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk likes to make bold claims. Sometimes he comes through, and we end up with a reusable Falcon 9 rocket, but Musk also has a tendency to get carried away, particularly when it comes to Mars. The SpaceX CEO has long promised a Mars colony on an aggressive, and some might say ill-advised timeline. Now, he’s doubling down with a claim that SpaceX will land the first humans on Mars in four to six years.
SpaceX has been working on the Starship (previously known as the Big Falcon Rocket or BFR) for several years as a replacement for the Falcon 9. We still don’t have anything approaching a final version of this vehicle, but SpaceX has produced multiple prototypes to test various parts of the design. Some have exploded accidentally and others on purpose, but the current SN8 prototype is starting to look like a real rocket rather than a water tower. The next step will be a high-altitude test with three Raptor engines and body flaps.
While SpaceX hasn’t actually put a Starship in orbit yet, Elon Musk recently firmed up his plans to use that vehicle to send humans to Mars. During an award show webcast, Musk said he was “highly confident” that SpaceX could launch a crewed mission in six years. “If we get lucky, maybe four years,” Musk added. Musk has also pledged to send a Japanese billionaire on a trip around the moon in 2023 or so. It’s a big leap from orbiting the moon to landing on Mars in just a few years.
So, is this at all feasible? The current SpaceX timeline calls for the latest SN8 prototype to fly its high-altitude test in as little as a few days. This will mark the first time the rocket has been more than a few hundred feet from the ground and the first time it has flown with more than one Raptor engine. If everything works the first time, it’s possible SpaceX could be testing near-final versions of the Starship in another year or two. However, this is only half of the equation. To reach distant locations like Mars, the Starship needs the Super Heavy module, which lifts it out of Earth’s gravity well. SpaceX hasn’t started building this component yet, and we have no idea how long that will take.
There’s also the issue of safety, which Musk often glosses over when talking about humanity’s future on Mars. We don’t know what sort of effects radiation in deep space and on Mars will affect explorers. NASA has no firm timetable for landing humans on Mars, but the agency has floated the 2030s as a realistic goal if everything goes perfectly.
It’s possible Elon Musk is right — the Starship could be a transformative vehicle that changes the way we explore the solar system sooner rather than later, and the risks of life on Mars might be less severe than we currently think. However, it’s more likely SpaceX will have to adjust Musk’s ambitious plans.
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