- Dylan Intwala, AIT
Humans on Mars | SpaceX’s Quest to Colonize the Red Planet
SpaceX is a company that pushes limits. It pushes beyond the ordinary and aims to achieve the hardest of things. Founded by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk in 2002, SpaceX’s ultimate goal as a company is to get to Mars and build a self-sustainable colony for humans. It’s been a long, winding road for the California-based company so far. It has endured multiple setbacks, breaks and explosions, including numerous failures the company experienced while attempting to land reusable rocket boosters. Despite this, these next few years could prove successful for Elon Musk’s dream.
SpaceX began their story in 2002 when Elon Musk wanted to create a more cost-effective way of getting human beings to space. In Disney Plus’s Mars: Inside Space documentary, Musk explains that SpaceX was only created to show that space travel could be much less costly, and that NASA could stop spending money and time on getting to the International Space Station (ISS), instead focusing on bigger machines and bigger dreams. That, however, is only where SpaceX started.
It was in 2008 that SpaceX achieved its first success: Falcon 1, the company’s first ever rocket, took to the skies and reached the atmosphere successfully. Falcon 1 ended up completing just five missions, three of which were successful. Falcon 1 was the rocket that showed the world that other people could launch rockets ― not just Russia or NASA. This paved the way for SpaceX’s medium-lift and more impressive rocket, Falcon 9. This rocket made history in 2015, when its first stage (the lower part of the rocket) detached from the top, after passing the atmosphere, and landed successfully at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This marked the first ever time that a first stage of a rocket had been flown to space and then landed independently without human interference. This meant that SpaceX could use this booster in future missions, cutting costs for Falcon 9 in half. The rocket helped the company win a contract offered by NASA to deliver cargo and supplies to the ISS; this contract has been renewed multiple times, because of SpaceX’s continued efficiency and success rate.
SpaceX is widely regarded as the most successful private space company. In 2018, SpaceX launched Falcon Heavy, the strongest and most powerful operational rocket by a factor of 2. It landed 2 of the 3 Falcon boosters that composed the rocket. SpaceX has completed 2 crew missions (as of January 2021), both in 2020, using the new Crew Dragon, which sat atop the Falcon 9. Crew Dragon has state-of-the-art technology, but also provides comfort for the astronauts, something NASA capsules never offered.
However, a mission to Mars is nothing like a mission to low Earth orbit. Earth and Mars must align in the correct position, in order for rockets to launch from Earth and make it to Mars in the quickest time possible, an alignment that only occurs every 26 months. This gives SpaceX lots of time to properly develop a rocket capable of reaching Mars, while being cost-efficient. The vehicle currently planned to arrive on Mars is named Starship, though previously it was known by other names, such as the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) and then the Big Falcon Rocket (BFR). Starship is a two-part rocket designed to land on Mars, to make the return trip back to Earth, and finally, to land on Earth’s surface.
Starship is made of 2 different sections: the upper portion, known as Starship, and the lower portion, known as Super Heavy Booster. Both sections will launch together, though the booster will then separate once it’s in the air. Starship, coupled with Super Heavy, will launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Super Heavy booster will disconnect and land back on Earth, as Starship continues its journey to Mars. Before Starship leaves the Earth’s atmosphere, however, SpaceX will launch a tanker loaded with fuel. This tanker will connect with Starship in the atmosphere to fuel the vehicle. This will allow Starship to have enough fuel to make it to Mars. The tanker will return and land safely on Earth while the Starship continues to Mars. Since the prices of oxygen and methane are relatively low, the tanker’s will be an almost costless launch.
Once it arrives, Starship will enter Mars’ atmosphere almost diagonally at a speed of 7.5 kilometers per second. This means that air resistance will help the vehicle slow down, instead of using excess fuel. Starship will then rotate once low to the ground using its boosters, preparing for a soft touchdown on the red planet. From there, the ship will be refueled using local resources on Mars and sent back to Earth to complete a new mission. Oxygen and methane can be produced using carbon dioxide and water found on Mars and will be processed in a solar-powered factory. Of course, there’s no oxygen on Mars, so helmets will be mandatory at most times, unless inside an air-locked capsule. What about connectivity to Earth for astronauts? Musk has already begun settling that issue. SpaceX has been releasing hundreds of satellites into space for a while now. They’ll connect together to form a constellation of satellites that are needed for Starlink, a low-cost, high-latency internet connection. At first, the system will be used on Earth for people in rural areas who do not have immediate connection to fiber optic cables. Eventually, however, when humans begin settling on Mars, those Starlink satellites will be used to connect Mars to the internet, and with that, people on Mars will be able to communicate with Earth. Musk has also announced that when people colonize Mars, it will be free from international governing rules. He would like for it to be a self-governing colony, independent from Earth.
Twenty years ago, the idea of going to Mars was considered fantasy; it never seemed like it would actually happen. Despite this, it’s looking increasingly possible that Earthlings will travel to Mars. What will it be like? How quickly will we get there? That’s still unconfirmed right now. Elon Musk says he hopes to get to Mars by 2030, which sounds feasible. And it’s looking even more possible that we’ll be calling people born on Mars “martians” too.
Brown, Mike. “SpaceX: Here's the Timeline for Getting to Mars and Starting a Colony.” Inverse, Inverse, 3 July 2019, www.inverse.com/article/51291-spacex-here-s-the-timeline-for-getting-to-mars-and-starting-a-colony#:~:text=This%20could%20be%20the%20first%20year%20that%20SpaceX,unmanned%20ships%20could%20make%20their%20way%20to%20Mars.
“Mars & Beyond.” SpaceX, www.spacex.com/human-spaceflight/mars/.
O'Neill, Natalie. “Elon Musk's SpaceX Colony on Mars Won't Follow Earth-Based Laws.” New York Post, New York Post, 30 Oct. 2020, nypost.com/2020/10/30/elon-musks-spacex-colony-on-mars-wont-follow-earth-based-laws/.
“Starship Development History.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Jan. 2021, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starship_development_history#Big_Falcon_Rocket.