Science 5 min read

What You Need to Know about Elon Musk's Mars Colonization Plan

Katrevich Valeriy |

Katrevich Valeriy |

It’s well known that Elon Musk plans to take humanity to Mars. What’s not so well known is how he plans to do it.

Musk started SpaceX in 2002 with the ultimate goal of facilitating Mars colonization. More than a decade later, Musk and SpaceX have made significant progress, but Mars colonization is still work in progress. This week at the International Astronautical Congress, Musk will take us through his plan for colonizing the Red Planet.

Here’s a rundown of what we know, and what we hope to find out tomorrow:

1. What we know: How we’ll get There

Musk’s Mars plan is riding on two main logistical elements: a monster rocket booster and a giant spaceship.

First, the booster will launch the ship from Earth. Then, once in space, the ship will continue on to Mars. Together, the booster and the ship make up what Musk had previously dubbed the Mars Colonial Transporter, or “MCT”. Because Musk believes that this design has the potential to go even beyond Mars, he’s renamed the MCT the “Interplanetary Transport System”.

Meet the BFR

No, “BFR” is not the revamped space sequel to the Big Friendly Giant, nor does it stand for “Big Friendly Rocket”.  Instead, it refers to the giant rocket’s code name where the “F” is less than rated PG. The fact that this rocket is bigger than the Saturn V rocket that helped put a man on the moon and also has the capacity to launch a spacecraft with 100-ton payload means it really is a big f#*!ing rocket. BFR is likely to have a single massive rocket core and will be reusable.

Comes Complete with Matching BFS

No Interplanetary Transport System is complete without a Big F#*!ing Spaceship, or “BFS” for (kid-friendly) short. BFS will be the draft responsible for carrying colonists to Mars. Musk has stated that he hopes to oversee the first unmanned mission to Mars by 2019, and the first manned mission by 2025.

Powered by Raptors

The Interplanetary Transport System be powered by the company’s proprietary Raptor engine design, which has been under development since 2009. The engine will be fueled by liquid methane, and boasts impressive specs like 500,000 pounds of thrust at liftoff.

What about Supplies?

Cargo will be sent to the Red Planet ahead of time, before any colonists arrive. Several missions using the Dragon cargo capsule will send supplies to Mars. Falcon Heavy rockets will get the cargo capsules into space and continue on to Mars, and the capsules will use Supersonic Retro-Propulsion to land on the Martian surface.

How will we decide you gets to board the first spacecraft for Mars?
Vladislav Lysakov |

2. What we Hope to Find out Tomorrow: How Will We Survive?

One way or Roundtrip?

Musk has alluded to the fact that the BFS will be reusable, stating that the ship will return to Earth after taking colonists to Mars. However, there is little information about the return trip, and how Musk and SpaceX plan to do it.

Cue Disco classic “I Will Survive”

We’re not all super botanists like Matt Damon in the Martian. Musk is yet to reveal the gritty details of how humans will survive on Mars. He’s jokingly said that he wants people to live and die on Mars, “just not on impact.” But, seriously, about directly after impact (or what we hope is a very smooth landing)?

How will we secure enough oxygen to breathe in a thin atmosphere made mostly of carbon dioxide? Mars’s thin atmosphere will also expose the colonists to extremely cold temperatures and intense radiation. How does Musk plan to protect colonists from the elements?

What about water? And food? Even if colonists have adequate supplies from the Dragon cargo capsules in the short term, farming will be necessary for the survival of a viable Martian colony in the long term. Hydroponic farming was originally pioneered by NASA as a possible solution for farming in space, and because Martian soil is rich in perchlorates that are harmful to humans, hydroponics may be a good often for the first Muskites on Mars.

Me First!

There is also the question of who will go to Mars. Will the privilege be reserved exclusively for astronauts and scientists? Will there be a lottery system? Will only the physically able and mentally prepared get to go? What will be the criteria for physical fitness? Genetic screenings? Choosing who gets to go to Mars will almost be like defining who we as a species deem worthy enough to live. Picking the first passengers on a manned mission to Mars will most likely be a question of scientific expertise or economic means, but only time will tell.

Who Will Foot the Big F#*!ing Bill?

Last but not least, the biggest question is perhaps where the funding for these Mars Missions will come from. Between his Tesla and SpaceX endeavors, Musk certainly has a healthy stash of cash to help finance interplanetary transport, but successfully completing several unmanned exploratory and supply missions along with the actual, possibly roundtrip manned mission will be astronomically expensive. NASA has seen a significant reduction in its budget over the past few decades, and has such begun to outsource some of its transport work to private companies like SpaceX and Boeing. NASA has also done so in the interest of focusing its attention on a Mars mission, which could lead to further collaboration with SpaceX.

We’re excited for Musk’s much anticipated announcement, and in just a few hours, we’ll (hopefully) have a few more answers…

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