September 30, 2011
SpaceX Sets Its Sights On Mars
US space transport company Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) announced Thursday that it plans to develop a fully reusable orbital launch system, with the goal of one day helping humans settle on Mars.
Elon Musk, the company´s founder, said the vehicle would be a reusable version of the Falcon 9 rocket which SpaceX used to propel its Dragon space capsule to low-Earth orbit during a test mission last year. Its first cargo trip to the International Space Station (ISS) is scheduled for January.
Musk told reporters at the National Press Club in Washington that reusable rockets would save tens of millions of dollars and would make trips to other planets more of a possible reality.
“A fully and rapidly reusable system is fully required for life to become multi-planetary, for us to establish life on Mars,” he said. “If planes were not reusable, very few people would fly.”
Currently, a Falcon rocket costs between 50 and 60 million dollars to build and launch. Then, it is lost forever as it burns up during re-entry of Earth´s atmosphere.
He said that complex engineering problems have kept previous efforts to meet the challenge at bay.
“I wasn't sure it could be solved, for a while, but then I think just relatively recently – probably in the last 12 months or so – I've come to the conclusion that it can be solved and I think SpaceX is going to try to do it,” said Musk.
“Now, we could fail – I'm not saying we are certain of success here – but we are going to try to do it. And we have a design that on paper – doing the calculations, doing the simulations – it does work,” he said. “Now we need to make sure that those simulations and reality agree, because generally when they don't reality wins.”
Musk, who founded PayPal and has used his unending wealth to start the electric car company Tesla Motors and SpaceX, said he has come to the conclusion that he can solve the reusable launch system complexities.
“We are going to try to do it. We have a design that on paper, doing the calculations, doing the simulations, it does work,” he told reporters.
Musk played an animation showing how the Falcon 9 rocket could be designed to deliver a Dragon spacecraft to orbit, then return to the launch site and touchdown vertically, under rocket power, on landing gear. The animation of the design possibilities can be found at http://www.spacex.com/npc-luncheon-elon-musk.php.
As currently designed, the Dragon and the Falcon 9's first stage are intended to be reusable after recovery from ocean splashdowns.
Musk said much more designing and testing would be needed to produce the kind of launch system shown in the animation.
A totally reusable rocket would greatly reduce the cost of spaceflight, bringing the cost from $60 million per launch to a mere $50,000 per launch, said Musk.
Although a powered landing may not be familiar to us, it doesn´t mean it wouldn´t work. NASA used powered landings to put its rovers on Mars, and will also use a rocket-powered “sky crane” with its Mars Science Laboratory “Curiosity” that will launch in November.
Musk, who announced the possibility of having a dual-purpose rocket system attached to future Mars-bound Dragon vehicles, said the possibility makes sense. The emergency escape system could also be used as a powered landing system. Why not have a similar system bolted to Dragon vehicles intended to deliver supplies and astronauts to low-Earth orbit too?
Musk didn´t outline costs for development. “If it does work, it'll be pretty huge,” he said, adding that the animation was about a 90 percent accurate depiction of the envisioned rocket.
“Dragon currently doesn't have a launch escape system, and the shuttle didn't either,” said Musk. “But we agree with NASA it is a wise move to have that. It will take us about 2 years, maybe 3 to have a launch escape system, and it will be a significant innovation, as the escape thrusters are bolted in the side of the spacecraft, so can also use it for propulsive landing, so we've been talking with NASA about using Dragon for a test to land to on other planets like Mars,” he said.
It´s possible that this technology might not work, Musk acknowledged. But, we will never know unless we try, he noted.
“Now we need to make sure that those simulations and reality agree, because generally when they don't reality wins,” he said.
SpaceX´s next mission will launch a Dragon capsule to the ISS, perhaps in January. The company also hopes to eventually also ferry astronauts to the station in addition to cargo. Musk said it could be possible to launch humans on the next space flight if SpaceX stuck to the same safety standards that were in force for the shuttle program.
“Dragon currently doesn´t have a launch escape system, and the shuttle didn´t either,” he said. “But we agree with NASA it is a wise move to have that. It will take us about two years, maybe three to have a launch escape system.”
Musk´s longer-term vision is to carry payloads and eventually humans to Mars. He has often talked about his vision to help make humanity a “multi-planet species,” and has said the first human mission to Mars could take place within 10 to 15 years, depending on funding.
He said low-cost access to space would make it a real possibility to send a “self-sustaining human population” to Mars. Such a settlement would serve as a cosmic life-insurance policy in the event of a global disaster on Earth, he added.
He suggested spending a quarter of a percent of gross domestic product on space development. Assuming an estimated annual GDP of $14 trillion, that would equal $35 billion a year being spent on space exploration. NASA´s current budget is about $19 billion.
Musk said that a trip to Mars would cost about $500,000 per person, which could be affordable for at least one person in a million. If Earth´s population is 8 billion by the time a Mars mission is available, that would imply at least 8,000 people could afford the trip, he said.
Of course all these calculations rely on the development of affordable, fully reusable rockets, he admitted.
“I think this is pretty exciting and I think everyone in America and arguably the rest of the world should be pretty fired up about what we are doing,” Musk said.
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