Officially, NASA intends to land astronauts on Mars by about 2040, give or take a year or two. Recently, SpaceX’s President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell told CNBC that the aerospace company will beat NASA to Mars by at least a decade.
Ordinarily, these kinds of predictions would cause eye rolling. However, SpaceX, under the direction of its CEO Elon Musk, has accomplished things that were once considered science fiction, including the routine landing and reuse of its workhorse rocket the Falcon 9. When anyone associated with SpaceX talks, the world listens.
Musk’s long-term goal is to establish a human settlement on Mars. That goal seems to inform just about everything else he has undertaken during his career as an entrepreneur. The Starship, the massive reusable rocket that SpaceX is developing at its facility in Boca Chica, Texas is intended to be the instrument of that goal, as it may take the first settlers and supplies across the interplanetary gulfs to the Red Planet.
What has to happen before Shotwell’s prediction becomes reality? First, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has to approve the Starship for flight, a process that has been repeatedly delayed, but is now scheduled for the end of May 2022.
When launches of the Starship/Superheavy rocket proceed from Boca Chica, many things must go right in short order for Shotwell’s promise of humans on Mars “before this decade is out” to happen. The first thing will be for the rocket to conduct orbital missions successfully, with both the Super Heavy and the Starship landing back at Boca Chica without exploding. According to Bloomberg, Shotwell hopes those flights will begin the summer of 2022.
Next, SpaceX will have to prove it is capable of in-orbit refueling. Refueling capability will be crucial for the Human Landing System variant of the Starship to take astronauts and cargo to the moon and back as part of NASA’s Project Artemis to return to the moon. Currently, SpaceX is scheduled to conduct an uncrewed mission to the lunar surface in 2024 and then land the first humans on the moon since the end of the Apollo program the following year.
If all of the above happens successfully, then SpaceX might be ready to send a Starship to Mars. The first one will likely be uncrewed, packed with cargo, including equipment to start setting up an initial Mars base. One crucial device will be a machine to turn Martian air, primarily carbon dioxide, into rocket fuel — methane to be precise. Musk is already developing ways to convert CO2 to methane on Earth, which would not only help create rocket fuel but could also remove a greenhouse gas from this planet’s atmosphere.
A cargo Starship mission to Mars would have lots of room to carry shared payloads. Presumably, an organization that wants to send a rover or anything else to the Red Planet would be able to buy a ride.
The final launch window for Mars in this decade would take place in late 2028 and early 2029. For Shotwell’s promise to be fulfilled, the first human expedition to Mars must depart from Earth during that window.
The voyage would be fraught with great danger. Radiation and the rigors of microgravity will threaten the astronauts on the trip to Mars. After having landed on the Red Planet, explorers are expected to confront a myriad of conditions that could kill them. Indeed, Musk has warned that a certain number of people who go to Mars will likely die in the attempt.
Will the crew of the first Starship to Mars return to Earth after a sojourn of exploration and discovery? Or will they pledge to stay on Mars, preparing the way for the settlers who follow their lead?
Will NASA and other national space agencies like the European Space Agency (ESA) pay for seats for their own astronauts? If SpaceX pulls this off, the idea of a government-centric expedition to Mars would seem superfluous.
Any attempt to send astronauts on a 100-million-mile voyage to Mars will be risky. For a private company, even SpaceX, to undertake it will seem to be incredible. A disaster would redound very badly for SpaceX and Musk. But success would be history making, to say the least.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.