SpaceX President and COO Gwynn Shotwell reiterated SpaceX’s goal of landing people on Mars. She says it is feasible to land humans on Mars by the end of the 2020s and landing people on the Moon could happen sooner.
NASA recently activated an option in one of its contracts with SpaceX to include SpaceX’s Human Landing System design in the Artemis III mission. The space agency says it might give other aerospace agencies a chance to submit lunar lander designs for ferrying astronauts between lunar orbit and specific sites on the Moon as part of its fledgling Sustaining Lunar Development program.
NASA plans to use the Artemis Program and Lunar Gateway to establish a more sustained lunar presence than was possible during the Apollo Program of the 1960s and early 1970s. NASA had planned to develop more robust Apollo-based hardware for the extended lunar exploration missions that were planned for the Apollo Applications Program, but that was shelved due to budget cuts.
SpaceX’s current contracts with NASA includes the launch of the initial components of the Lunar Gateway on a Falcon Heavy rocket as early as May 2024. It also has contracts with other aerospace companies like Intuitive Machines to launch robotic lunar landers that are being developed for NASA.
SpaceX is also working on its Starship/Super Heavy stack, which will be capable for everything from sending large cargos and people to Mars to sending cargo from point to point on Earth. Its planned orbital test for Starship is currently being held up by the FAA’s regulatory review process, which caused several months’ worth of delays.
If the FAA gets out of the way, SpaceX can begin serious work on its plans for Mars. Getting humans to Mars in a decade might be feasible if everything goes smoothly for the next few launch windows. A launch window for sending a payload (and, eventually, people) opens up once every 26 months. In the below video, Mars Society President Robert Zubrin presents an updated version of Mars Direct, which uses SpaceX’s rockets as part of a lower-cost plan for getting people to Mars in less time than other plans, at the International Space Development Conference.
SpaceX might borrow elements from Mars Direct to get people to Mars in less than a decade. Gwynn Shotwell mentioned that it might take a grand gesture for the average person to see that it’s feasible: “I think we need to get a large delivery to the surface of Mars, and then people will start thinking harder about it. … Within five or six years, people will see that that will be a real place to go.”
Besides lingering regulatory bureaucracy, SpaceX’s leadership regards the engineering as the hardest part of getting people to Mars. CEO Elon Musk sees it as a matter of optimizing the launch of tonnage into Earth orbit.
Living and working on Mars won’t be for the claustrophobic or for people who are happiest when they can spend a lot of their time outdoors. Elon Musk mentioned that it “will be dangerous, cramped, difficult, hard work.”
Will such cramped, outdoorsman-frustrating conditions be worth it? Well, as Elon Musk famously said, “I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.”
He is certainly not the only person who makes the case for sending people to Mars. Robert Zubrin fights tooth and nail for support for Mars missions with the Mars Society – which, incidentally, is having its next annual conference on October 20-23, 2022, at the Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona. Musk has made appearances at previous Mars Society conferences.
Getting people to Mars by the end of the 2020s will certainly be a challenge. However, SpaceX President Gwynn Shotwell is confident that SpaceX can pull it off. She previously said that SpaceX’s Mars efforts could be at least partially funded by other verticals like SpaceX’s Starlink satellite Internet service, which currently has a waitlist with hundreds of thousands of people and demonstrated its ability to function in disaster zones and regions that don’t normally get good, affordable Internet service.
Starlink could bring in billions of revenue that SpaceX can use to fund its efforts to develop rockets capable of launching large payloads and people to Mars.