What do entrepreneurs and scientist have in common? They both love a good challenge! The more difficult the problem is, the more interesting the challenge is.
Elon Musk is known for overcoming difficult challenges. And he has a long fascination with space, especially Mars. Seeing no upcoming plans by NASA for missions to Mars, he decided to create his own company, Space X, in 2002. Their first three rockets failed, but soon enough (in 2008) they had a successful launch. Fast-forward to this year, when they overcame one of the hardest hurdles in the rocket business: they landed a rocket on a barge (a barge!) in their mission to create reusable heavy-load rockets.
Recently, he revealed his vision for a journey to Mars: build an interplanetary travel system with reusable rockets, send a return mission to Mars in 2018, then possibly send a payload every 26 months, and hopefully have a first manned mission in 10 years. So, is this doable?
One of the biggest challenges of space travel is the cost involved. The rocket that has taken the Curiosity rover to Mars cost half a billion dollars, out of the $2.5 billion total cost of the Curiosity mission. However, if you could reuse the rocket, rather than letting it burn up on re-entry to the atmosphere, you could reduce costs significantly. Just like with aircraft, the more often you re-use them, the cheaper the per-flight running cost becomes. And Space X has already cracked that problem.
The next challenge is to land a heavy load on Mars. Mars has a very thin atmosphere, only 10% of Earth’s, which means that there is nothing to slow the spaceship down. Think of the difference between a rock falling through water or falling through air – it falls faster through air because water is denser and slows the fall. The Curiosity rover is the heaviest load ever landed on Mars, and it used a “Sky crane” manoeuver, where a platform with retrorockets slowly lowered the rover to the surface. But the capsule carrying the rover was falling at subsonic speed (the speed of sound is 340 meters per second) at that stage. Space X plans to use a “propulsive lander” (retropropulsion) similar to that they used in landing their Falcon 9 rocket on the barge. However, the heavier the spaceship is, the harder it is to slow it down, meaning the spaceship will be moving at supersonic speeds. The instabilities seen during the landing of the empty Falcon 9 rocket would become greater and make a safe landing much trickier. Still, Space X has a good chance of figuring that bit out as well.
So, is 10 years a reasonable estimate to see the first human mission to Mars? It is very optimistic, but not impossible. Musk does not have specific plans for an actual colony and sees Space X as a “road builder” that creates opportunities for others to develop such resources. His desire is to extend human adventure past the Earth’s lower orbit and to inspire people about the future. In fact we have that in common.
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