National Geographic : 2016 Nov
42 national geographic • november 2016 larger rocket, the Falcon Heavy, but even that won’t be large enough to carry humans to Mars. Musk promised to unveil details of his Mars plans in late September, after this story went to press (and just weeks after another SpaceX rocket exploded on the launchpad). But in advance there was no indica- tion that SpaceX had developed, much less tested, the other technologies necessary to keep humans alive and healthy on Mars or on the long journey. Nevertheless, Musk announced this past June that SpaceX aims to dispatch its first astronauts to Mars in 2024. They’d land (softly, he hopes) in 2025. “There’ll be fame and that kind of thing for them,” Musk says. “But in the grander historical context, what really matters is being able to send a large number of people, like tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of people, and ulti- mately millions of tons of cargo.” That’s why he thinks reusable rockets are so important. NASA, which landed men on the moon in 1969 and began exploring Mars with robotic probes even before that, says it plans to send astronauts to Mars too—but not until the 2030s, and then only to orbit the red planet. The dangerous, tricky feat of actually landing a large craft on the surface, NASA says, is a “horizon goal” that it would achieve only in a later decade. NASA doesn’t talk about Martian cities. Everyone seems to agree on one thing: If hu- manity has a next great destination in space, Mars is it. But clearly there are conflicting vi- sions of how attainable it is. Legendary NASA astronaut John Grunsfeld, who fixed the Hubble Space Telescope three times and retired this past spring as the agency’s science chief, remembers being told, back in 1992, that he was in the class of astronauts that would someday go to Mars. This year, thanks in part to the success of The Martian, a best-selling book and blockbuster movie, NASA received 18,300 applications for its next class—in which there are at most 14 openings. Grunsfeld still wants humans to go to Mars, but he also stands by the advice he gave a few years ago to NASA administrator and fellow and inside SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, California, hundreds of young engineer faces watched the approaching ball of light on video screens, transfixed. At launch control Musk ran outside to get a direct look. Seconds later there was an ominous boom. No one had ever succeed- ed in landing an orbital-class booster rocket like this; the first couple of times SpaceX had tried, the rocket had exploded. But this noise turned out to be merely a sonic boom from the booster’s rapid descent through the atmosphere. It reached Musk’s ears just as the booster was landing— gently, safely, and successfully at last. In front of their screens the engineers were whooping. SpaceX had just achieved a milestone in the quest for reusable rockets. Musk figures the technology could cut launch costs by a factor of a hundred, giving SpaceX a competitive advan- tage in its business of launching satellites and delivering supplies to the International Space Station. But that has never been the point for Musk. The first soft landing of a booster rocket, he said during a news teleconference that night, was “a critical step along the way toward being able to establish a city on Mars.” Elon Musk doesn’t just want to land on Mars, the way Apollo astronauts landed on the moon. He wants to build a new civilization there before some calamity, possibly self-inflicted, wipes us out on Earth. SpaceX employees in Hawthorne often wear “Occupy Mars” T-shirts. Just around the corner from Musk’s no-frills desk, twin im- ages of Mars hang on a wall: One shows the red, parched planet today, and the other shows a blue Mars, “terraformed” by engineers, with seas and rivers. Musk imagines colonizing Mars with a flotilla of interplanetary Mayflowers, each carry- ing a hundred settlers, like the original, except that many of these pilgrims would be ponying up $500,000 or more for a berth on the spaceship. SpaceX, founded in 2002, has yet to launch a single human into space, though it hopes to change that next year by carrying NASA astronauts to the space station on a Falcon 9. It has been building a Everyone seems to agree: If humanity has a next great destination in space, Mars is it. But how attainable is it?