Elon Musk made an appearance at the International Mars Society’s first-ever 100% online conference to discuss progress being made on the Starship rocket and SpaceX’s plans for Mars. He says that Starship could make its first test launch to Mars in as little as four years.
According to Musk, launch windows are as big a limiting factor as the ongoing development of Starship. An ideal launch window for trips to Mars opens up once every 26 months.
“[SpaceX] would maybe have a shot of sending or trying send something to Mars in three years, but the window is four years away,” he said.
Early development of Starship has not been without its challenges. In May, a prototype blew up shortly after an engine test. The more recent cryo test in early October revealed a leak when filled with super-cold nitrogen that could have been dangerous during launch.
However, SpaceX has also resolved enough of the challenges to recently conduct a successful “hop test” to an altitude of 150 meters. Its upcoming tests include the launch of the SN8 prototype to a height of up to 20 kilometers in the near future. If everything proceeds more or less smoothly, it could begin point-to-point flights on Earth as early as 2022 and fly people around the Moon as early as 2023.
Although SpaceX and Musk are known for their ambitious timetables, which have sometimes slipped from their previous dates, the Mars Society has been complimentary of their plans. At Musk’s previous appearance at the Mars Society conference in 2012, he received the Mars Pioneer Award.
“SpaceX is taking on the biggest single challenge, which is the transportation system. There’s all sorts of other systems that are going to be needed,” said Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin.
Robert Zubrin has a background in aerospace engineering and is particularly known as the author of several books on Mars, especially The Case for Mars, in which he outlines the argument in favor of exploring and eventually colonizing Mars, and Mars Direct, which describes a relatively low-cost plan for landing the first few crews on Mars. Besides serving as president of the Mars Society, he has testified before Congressional committees in support of exploring Mars on several occasions.
Another big challenge is finding the will to go to Mars, which the Mars Society thinks it can help provide. Many of the videos from this year’s virtual conference have already been uploaded to the Mars Society’s YouTube channel and some of them already have thousands of views in just the past couple of days. Elon Musk’s appearance currently stands at more than 37,000 views.
Musk did dismiss the idea that a Mars settlement will be self-sustaining almost as soon as boots hit the Martian regolith, saying that it might not happen in his lifetime. He says that his plans for Mars are very much about giving humanity hope for the future by helping to solve the technical issues and get the process started.
“This is really about eliminating existential risk for civilization as a whole. … Being confined to Earth until some eventual extinction event is depressing. We need things that make you want to get out of bed in the morning.”