Elon Musk Expected to Detail SpaceX's Mars Ambitions

Musk is set to speak to the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara.

The space, car and tech mogul is scheduled to speak before the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, today at 2:30 p.m. ET.

Officially, Musk is slated to “discuss the long-term technical challenges that need to be solved to support the creation of a permanent, self-sustaining human presence on Mars,” in a keynote speech titled, “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species.”

“The technical presentation will focus on potential architectures for colonizing the Red Planet that industry, government and the scientific community can collaborate on in the years ahead,” a description of the program reads.

Space enthusiasts and Musk fans have been waiting for the announcement for quite a while, with Musk making several hints in recent months about his Martian ambitions.

“Mars is the next natural step,” he said at an event in Hong Kong in January, noting that he’s hoping for the first mission to Mars to take place around 2025.

At that event, he said that Mars was the only planet “that we really have a shot of establishing a self-sustaining city on,” and that city will encourage the development of greater spaceflight technology, according to Musk, that other colonies can be established throughout our solar system and beyond.

Indeed, according Space Frontier Executive Director Hannah Kerner, Musk’s address today is expected to consist of two parts: the first looking at the “architecture for a mission to Mars,” and the second consisting of “a proposition for collaboration between companies, scientists and nations.”

But there are a number of steps that will need to be taken along the way.

A mission to Mars would be a big step for SpaceX, which is still reeling from the explosion of one of its rockets on a launch pad in Florida earlier this month.

But while SpaceX is still years away from a Mars mission, experts see it as uniquely placed to make one happen.

Establishing a colony won’t be without its challenges.

Access to water won't necessarily be the toughest challenge for a future Mars colony.

“From a resources perspective, Mars is well stocked for a pioneering colony,” Kerner said. “Most of the water on Mars is in the polar caps, but there is also subsurface water at lower latitudes that might be very easily accessible if we can release it and capture it.”

Water, plus boulders and dirt will allow Martian explorers to build cement structures, according to Kerner, while lava flows will provide iron and magnesium that can be used for manufacturing machines and other infrastructure.

But that all assumes the astronauts make it to the red planet healthily.

And, as with all space travel, Kerner warned, “there will surely be more vehicle failures and potential loss of life on the path to Mars.”

“What's important is that those involved understand the risks,” she added, “and believe they are outweighed by the benefits to humanity.”

But what’s the point? Why Mars? Why take the risk when we have problems at home to confront?

At the event in Hong Kong in January, Musk described the desire to go to Mars this way: “It’s really a fundamental decision we need to make as a civilization. What kind of future do we want?”

Kerner also has lofty ideas of the benefits that humanity will derive from Mars missions.

It’s not about business opportunities as some believe, or the chance to prove national superiority as it was during the last century, she said.

And back at home, she said, “it will grow the space economy and the GDP of our country and participating countries, create jobs, bring new technologies to market that can be applied to sustaining Earth today.”

But why send humans? Why not just send a robot? Answer: economics.

“When exploration has progressed passed its early stages, it becomes much more economically efficient for the scientific results to send humans with expert domain knowledge and the ability to understand geologic context and interpret their environment, as exemplified in the Apollo missions,” Kerner said.

While robots will be part of the effort, Kerner said that, “the purpose of Musk's and NASA's mission to Mars is not just to advance our understanding of Mars and subsequently our Earth and solar system -- it is to expand the human species both geographically and evolutionarily.”

Indeed, while Musk’s dreams may be wrapped up in an sober view of humanity's ultimate, inevitable extinction on Earth and the desire to push our species off the blue marble, he also made clear that a big draw was a little more immediate, and maybe a little more starry-eyed.

“What gets me more excited is that this would be an incredible adventure,” Musk said. “It would be like the greatest adventure ever.”