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At an awards ceremony this week, Elon Musk said he believes he can start sending humans to Mars with SpaceX by 2026 at the latest, or 2024 “if we get lucky.”
Was Musk talking up his timeline to a group that just awarded him for innovation (the SpaceX founder won this year's Axel Springer Award), or does he actually believe this? It's hard to say. But the timeline is, to put it mildly, unlikely.
SpaceX has partnered with NASA on several projects, including making a customized lunar shuttle to travel between the moon’s orbit and surface for the Artemis series of missions. NASA’s Artemis program wants to put people on the moon by 2024, and even that mission’s plans are called “an aggressive timeline” by NASA administrators.
NASA says the moon goal is critical to the next phase of traveling to Mars, but the agency hasn’t set any timeline for that phase. The 2024 goal was imposed from outside by Vice President Mike Pence (it was originally 2028).
In the meantime, the rocket Musk is relying on to get to Mars as soon as 2024 is about to complete a big test. Later this week, SpaceX is set to launch SN8, its latest Starship prototype, to a target altitude of 9 miles (15 kilometers)—easily the highest a Starship has ever flown. SN8 has three engines, and that's still 27 fewer than the 30 engines that will power the Starship that Musk ultimately plans to send to Mars.
Even with a capable spacecraft in hand, a lot of the problems with a Mars journey haven't even come close to being solved. The trip to Mars takes six months on Musk’s planned timeline, meaning anyone inside the ship will be exposed to cosmic radiation for almost that entire time.
Blocking—or even reducing—that radiation would mean adding weight to an already unproven craft on an untried human journey. Volunteers have spent that much time in simulated flight conditions, but no real people have actually made the real and dangerous journey.
So let’s say humans make the six-month trip with all the supplies they need, touch down on Mars, then immediately return to Earth. The ship will either need to have the full round trip worth of supplies or be able to refuel and restock using some kind of technology to recycle or harvest resources from what Mars has available.
This is easy in the world of science fiction, where creators have posited “matter recyclers” that make extremely clean, reusable atoms. In the real world, however, we can barely recycle plastic with efficiency.
And Musk plans for these people to stay on Mars, not just travel. That means finding safe shelter that, again, protects the Mars settlers from cosmic radiation. They’ll need clean water, a way to produce energy, a very secure air supply and containment, and much more.
Musk has suggested using a nuclear reactor at several points in this journey, from on the ship itself to shorten the trip, to on the Red Planet’s surface as a generator. That, too, could have radioactive consequences for the settlers—but without it, it’s even harder to imagine how this situation can be made livable.
Musk seems to be relying on a combination of comparative optimism and techno-optimism. “Comparative optimism can be defined as a self-serving, asymmetric judgment of the future,” researchers explain.
The term has come up in 2020 as people decide to go out without masks, have social gatherings that are against public health guidelines, and engage in other behaviors that fall under a general umbrella of “we’ll figure it out, it will be fine.”
It’s hard to imagine how the many and major obstacles between today and a human Mars flight will be resolved by 2026. But then again, Musk has proven everyone wrong before.
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