Elon Musk Expected to Detail SpaceX's Mars Ambitions

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

September 27, 2016, 4:12 AM

— -- Speculation is rife that SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is about to detail plans to take humans to Mars within a decade.

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.

The private space company was selected to transport humans to the International Space Station at the end of 2017.

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

“As a private company, SpaceX is able to take risks and manage their projects in a way that NASA is not able to do as a government agency, allowing them to explore novel technologies and to innovate much more quickly and inexpensively,” Kerner told ABC News.

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.

PHOTO: SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft lift off from Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for their eighth official Commercial Resupply (CRS) mission, April 8, 2016, in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft lift off from Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for their eighth official Commercial Resupply (CRS) mission, April 8, 2016, in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
NASA via Getty Images

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

Radiation exposure on the way to Mars puts astronauts “at huge risk of cancer,” according to Kerner, and is “a major open problem that must be solved for the mission to be feasible.”

Other issues include the psycho-social effects of space travel as well as the effect of decreased gravity on the human body, she said.

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?”

“Do we want a future where we’re forever confined to one planet until some eventual extinction event, however far in the future, that might occur? Or do we want to become a multi-planet species and then ultimately be out there among the stars?”

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

PHOTO: Mars is pictured in an image made with the Hubble Space Telescope when the planet was 50 million miles from Earth on May 12, 2016.
Mars is pictured in an image made with the Hubble Space Telescope when the planet was 50 million miles from Earth on May 12, 2016.

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.

“The greatest benefits of exploring and settling Mars ... will be the knowledge we as humans gain of how to grow nourishing food with limited resources, how to administer and diagnose medicine remotely, how to generate power for a community with alternative energy, how to cooperate on large projects between nations,” she said. “These advances represent immeasurable benefit for humans, economies, and industries on Earth and for a nascent Mars colony before, during, and after missions to Mars.”

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.”

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