SpaceX chief Elon Musk has Mars tourism on his mind – starting in 10 years

The spaceship and electric car entrepreneur Elon Musk has laid out what could be described as the most extreme vision of eco-tourism ever – passenger trips to Mars.

His presentation at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico on his plans for tourism travel to Mars was heavy on both technology – the how of getting there – and on the dangers that await those first pioneers just a decade from now.

Mr Musk envisions his spacecraft holding 100 or more passengers voyaging to the pristine Red Planet within a decade, if all goes well, at fares that would start at approximately US$200,000 and drop toward $100,000 over time.

Although sketchy on funding, the founder of the SpaceX rocket company and Tesla Motors said he would be willing to spend his own fortune on furthering the ambition.

“It was very detailed on the spacecraft, but not so detailed when it comes to funding,” said John Holst, a research analyst at the Space Foundation. “It’s about inspiring others to see that this is possible. But a lot of things have to fall into place for this to happen.”

But Mr Musk also stressed the initial attempt would carry extraordinary risk.

“The first journey will be very dangerous, and the risk of fatality will be very high,” he said in response to a question during the highly anticipated presentation. “Are you prepared to die? Then you are a candidate for going.”

Mr Musk said that he would be happy to spend his personal assets, valued at about $8.6 billion, to further the goal and that public-private partnerships would be needed, without being specific. He stressed that while there are risks, venturing to Mars would be fun for those “with an exploratory spirit”.

SpaceX is already making progress in one of the key technologies Mr Musk said is needed to enable travel to Mars: launching payloads into orbit and returning the rockets to Earth for reuse. The company currently flies the Falcon 9 rocket for customers that include commercial satellites and the Nasa.

For Mars, Mr Musk envisions an enormous booster rocket with 42 new Raptor engines blasting off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and launching a spacecraft holding about 100 people toward Mars. The spacecraft will be refuelled in orbit before heading to the Red Planet.

The trip could take 80 to 130 days, depending on the positions of Earth and Mars at the time. Environmentally friendly factories would be built on Mars to produce fuel for the return trip home, Mr Musk said, enabling the start of regular trips to and from the planet for eco-torists with deep pockets and a lot of time on their hands.

“The goal of SpaceX really is to build the transport system,” he said, drawing a comparison to the first transcontinental railway in the United States.

Bill Nye, the chief executive of the Planetary Society, said: “Elon Musk presented a very aggressive schedule that seemed feasible to the crowd. He thanked Nasa for its longtime support of his visions and for buying his rockets. SpaceX has changed how people think about spaceflight.”

Mr Musk is no stranger to the risks of space exploration: SpaceX has suffered setbacks including a September 1 fireball that destroyed one of its rockets on the launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Florida; that investigation is ongoing. The California-based company has not yet set people into space.

Mr Musk, while resolute in his vision of how humans can get to Mars, is less sure about whether he would risk his own life to do so. There are five young sons and a space company that rely on him.

“I’ve got to make sure that if something goes wrong on the flight and I die that there’s a good succession plan and the mission of the company continues and it doesn’t get taken over by investors who just want to maximise the profitability of the company,” he said.

“And I would like to see my kids grow up.”

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Published: September 28, 2016 04:00 AM


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