Officially, NASA intends to land astronauts on Mars by around 2040, plus or minus a year or two. Recently, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell told CNBC that the aerospace company will outpace NASA on Mars by at least a decade.
Ordinarily, these kinds of predictions would make your eyes roll. However, SpaceX, under its CEO Elon Musk, has accomplished things that were once considered science fiction, including the routine landing and reuse of its workhorse rocket, the Falcon 9. When someone associated with SpaceX speaks, the world listens.
Musk’s long-term goal is to establish a human settlement on Mars. This goal seems to inform just about everything he has done in his entrepreneurial career. The Starship, the massive reusable rocket that SpaceX is developing at its facilities in Boca Chica, Texas, is intended to be the instrument for that goal, as it could take early settlers and resupply across interplanetary gulfs to the red planet.
What must happen before Shotwell’s prediction becomes reality? First, the Federal Aviation Administration must approve the Starship’s flight, a process that has been repeatedly delayed but is now scheduled for late May 2022.
When the Starship/Superheavy rocket launches take place from Boca Chica, a lot has to happen quickly in order for Shotwell’s promise of humans to Mars “before the end of this decade” to be realized. The first thing will be for the rocket to successfully conduct orbital missions, with the Super Heavy and Starship landing in Boca Chica without exploding. According to Bloomberg, Shotwell expects these flights to begin in the summer of 2022.
Then, SpaceX will have to prove that it is capable of refueling in orbit. Refueling capability will be crucial for the spacecraft’s Human Landing System variant to get astronauts and cargo to the moon and back as part of NASA’s Project Artemis to return to the moon. Currently, SpaceX is scheduled to conduct an uncrewed mission to the lunar surface in 2024 and then land the first humans on the moon since the Apollo program ended the following year.
If all of the above happens successfully, SpaceX could be ready to send a spacecraft to Mars. The first will likely be unmanned, loaded with cargo, including equipment to begin setting up an initial base on Mars. A crucial device will be a machine to turn Martian air, mostly carbon dioxide, into rocket fuel – methane, to be precise. Musk is already developing ways to convert CO2 to methane on Earth, which would not only help create rocket fuel, but could also remove a greenhouse gas from this planet’s atmosphere.
A Starship cargo mission to Mars would have plenty of space to carry shared payloads. Presumably, an organization that wants to send a rover or whatever to the red planet would be able to buy a ride.
The last launch window for Mars during this decade would be in late 2028 and early 2029. For Shotwell’s promise to be fulfilled, the first human expedition to Mars must leave Earth during this window.
The journey would be strewn with pitfalls. Radiation and the rigors of microgravity will threaten astronauts on the journey to Mars. After landing on the Red Planet, the explorers would have to contend with a myriad of conditions that could kill them. Indeed, Musk warned that a number of people who travel to Mars are likely to die in the attempt.
Will the crew of the first Starship to Mars return to Earth after a stay of exploration and discovery? Or will they pledge to stay on Mars, preparing the way for colonists to follow their lead?
Will NASA and other national space agencies such as the European Space Agency pay for seats for their own astronauts? If SpaceX is successful, the idea of a government-centric expedition to Mars would seem redundant.
Any attempt to send astronauts on a 100 million mile journey to Mars will be risky. For a private company, even SpaceX, to undertake this will seem incredible. A disaster would come back very badly for SpaceX and Musk. But the success would be historic to say the least.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of the space exploration studies “Why is it so difficult to return to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond” and “Why Is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.