SpaceX: Here’s the Timeline for Getting to Mars and Starting a Colony
Elon Musk has a grand plan for getting humanity out of the confines of Earth, setting off to the moon, Mars, and even further reaches of the solar system. Musk has regularly estimated that humans could establish a city on Mars as early as 2050.
As CEO of SpaceX, he has led the development of the Starship. The rocket is designed to refuel and relaunch using liquid hydrogen and methane, unlike the rocket propellant used in the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. That means astronauts will be able to set up refueling depots around the solar system, hopping from planet to planet. Still under development, the Starship could see its first commercial flight as early as 2021.
Many plans for a Mars settlement expect a community in matters of decades. The United Arab Emirates aims for a city of 600,000 by 2117. Astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell told Inverse in October that “while the first human mission to land on Mars will likely take place in the next two decades, it will probably be more like 50-100 years before substantial numbers of people have moved to Mars to live in self-sustaining towns.”
SpaceX is aiming for a much, much faster timeframe, with a series of 10 launches to start a city by 2050. Here’s how it looks:
SpaceX’s Mars Plan: 2019
The company is set to hold the first “hop tests” for its Mars-bound Starship this year, seeing if the rocket can jump a few hundred kilometers. SpaceX has been developing a test facility in Boca Chica, Texas, shipping over 300,000 cubic yards of locally-sourced soil. In July 2018, the firm took shipment of a 95,000-gallon liquid oxygen tank, around the same capacity as 20 tanker trucks. It’s also completed a 600-kilowatt solar array and two ground station antennas that may also prove useful for Crew Dragon missions. In October 2018, it took shipment of the final major ground tank system to support the initial flights.
CEO Elon Musk previously described these tests as “fly out, turn around, accelerate back real hard and come in hot to test the heat shield because we want to have a highly reusable heat shield that’s capable of absorbing the heat from interplanetary entry velocities.” The tests were originally set to take place in the first few weeks of 2019, but a storm blew over the “hopper” test vehicle.
The firm completed its first hop test firing in April, reaching a few centimeters off the ground. More are expected later this year.
Assuming all goes well, it’s onto the next stage. In January, Musk claimed that the first orbital Starship prototype may arrive as early as June, which could help accelerate testing and move select plans to an earlier stage of the schedule.
SpaceX’s Mars Plan: 2020
As the United States holds its next presidential election, SpaceX will be working on the next stage of Starship tests. This year’s tests cover the booster, as well as high altitude, high-velocity flights. The team is expected to conduct a number of test flights before actually placing anyone on board. An orbital Starship could make its flight debut at this time.
SpaceX’s Mars Plan: 2021
The Starship is set to embark on its first commercial flight. Jonathan Hofeller, SpaceX vice president of commercial sales, revealed at a conference in Indonesia that the plan is to host the first flight around this time.
The Starship’s first voyage could see it send a commercial satellite into space for one of three telecoms firms. That sounds like a job for the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy, but if all goes well it could prove the Starship’s viability for future missions and help fund its further development.
“You could potentially recapture a satellite and bring it down if you wanted to,” Hofeller said. “It’s very similar to the [space] shuttle bay in that regard. So we have this tool, and we are challenging the industry: what would you do with it?”
SpaceX’s Mars Plan: 2022
This could be the first year that SpaceX reaches Mars. At the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, in September 2017, Musk suggested this year as the point at which at least two unmanned ships could make their way to Mars. The two planets will be at an ideal point to send a rocket in 2022, a phenomenon that occurs roughly every two years.
SpaceX previously released concept art of the Starship on its way to distant planets, based around the older design rather than the more recent stainless steel iteration pictured above:
“I feel fairly confident that we can complete the ship and prepare the ship for launch in about five years,” he said. “Five years feels like a long time to me.”
The ships would place power, mining and life support infrastructure for future flights. They would also confirm water resources and identify hazards. Each ship would carry around 100 tons of supplies.
However, in February, Musk suggested that SpaceX has more pressing missions:
SpaceX’s Mars Plan: 2023
This is the year when SpaceX is expected to send Japanese billionaire Yukazu Maezawa, alongside six to eight artists, on a trip around the moon using the Starship. While not specifically a Mars-focused mission, its success would bode well for a future manned mission. Based on Musk’s February comments, this could be the first major mission for the Starship.
SpaceX’s Mars Plan: 2024
It’s time for another election for president of the United States. It’s also the next time that the Earth and Mars are suitably aligned to send a rocket.
There’s a high chance that, based on Musk’s previous comments, SpaceX will not send two cargo ships to Mars in 2022 as previously suggested. If this prediction holds true, this will be the next ideal moment that SpaceX can send the cargo ships and lay the groundwork for a further mission.
If SpaceX has sent the two cargo ships by this stage, the next step will be the manned mission. The plan is to send two cargo ships, alongside two crew ships taking the first people to Mars. They will be tasked with setting up a propellant production plant, combining Martian water, ice, and carbon dioxide to create methane and liquid oxygen to fuel the ships and come back home. The humans would be tasked with collecting one tonne of ice every day to fuel the plant.
The first humans will also likely have to use solar-powered hydroponics to feed the plants and grow more food. Musk said in a February interview that the technology, which allows plants to grow without soil, is already in use on Earth and the same techniques could immediately apply to the Mars colony.
In short, it’s not going to be a leisurely visit. Musk stated at the South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas in March this year, that Mars and the moon “are often thought of as some escape hatch for rich people, but it won’t be that at all.”
SpaceX’s Mars Plan: 2025
This is the earliest point at which Musk thinks a Mars colony could take shape. The CEO has predicted a timeframe of “7 to 10 years” before the first bases take shape.
This will expand on the work left behind by the first humans. Paul Wooster, principal Mars development engineer for SpaceX, explained that “the idea would be to expand out, start off not just with an outpost, but grow into a larger base, not just like there are in Antarctica, but really a village, a town, growing into a city and then multiple cities on Mars.” The larger cities would offer habitats, greenhouses, life support, and enable new experiments that help to answer some of the big questions about life on Mars.
SpaceX’s Mars Plan: 2026
This could be the next time that SpaceX sends more ships to Mars. Musk explained on Twitter that the company could use 10 orbital synchronizations to complete a city by the year 2050. With the two planets set to align in February 2027, this could be about the right time to complete another launch.
SpaceX’s Mars Plan: Beyond
By the end of the next decade, SpaceX expects to have some sort of settlement on Mars. Musk has said there’s a 70 percent chance he’ll visit Mars himself in his lifetime, perhaps paying a visit to this developing colony. That is, depending on how the first settlements go — Musk said in 2016 that “probably people will die,” but “ultimately, it will be very safe to go to Mars, and it will be very comfortable.”
Mars could perhaps serve as a base for more ambitious missions, with Musk describing the Starship as “really intended as an interplanetary transport system that’s capable of getting from Earth to anywhere in the solar system as you establish propellant depots along the way.”
Beyond transforming humanity into a space-faring civilization, it could also preserve the species. SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said in April that “if something were to happen on Earth, you need humans living somewhere else…I think you need multiple paths to survival, and this is one of them.”
Related video: Elon Musk Predicts Our Future On Mars At SXSW 2018