Is getting to Mars in 10 years possible? We take a look at Elon Musk’s claims

In this post the team from Monash University, creators of the How to Survive on Mars course, discuss whether Elon Musk’s claims are accurate.

In this post the team from Monash University, creators of the How to Survive on Mars course, discuss whether Elon Musk’s claims are accurate.

FutureLearn Mars Elon Musk Monash

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.

Want to learn more about life on mars? Join How to Survive on Mars now.

Category Learning

Comments (18)


  • Roger Dymock

    Before we rush off to Mars we should look at the legality of what we are doing. If not we may be heading for a modern day version of the gold rush eras. Elon Musk’s Martian settlement would appear to violate the UN Outer Space Treaty. To quote; ‘ Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means’. The British Interplanetary Society held a one day symposium on 2017 October 10 to review said treaty.

  • Roger Dymock

    How not to do it is well described in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars trilogy. Poor leadership, groups with different agendas, too many settlers too soon. Good, really good, government is as important, if not more so, than actually getting to Mars (or an exoplanet).

  • Keirsten Snover

    One of the most exciting things about Elon’s vision for humanity’s journey to Mars is that while it may seem impossible to us now, in just a decade it could be actually happening. As the article mentioned, Elon is known for overcoming difficult challenges–lately SpaceX seems to be making the seemingly impossible, possible. He has the financial means, the resources, the personnel, the passion, and the determination to bring his vision to life in the next 10 years, or at least very close to that timeline. Then we just need to have other companies and organizations ready to build the city on Mars once SpaceX has the space highway in place. Then I think THAT will be the hard part–both the design and creation of a city on Mars (and sustaining it), and convincing companies to start sending people out in space to another planet.

    • Kate Henkel

      Agreed Keirsten! Elon Musk is making incredible gains, and it’s a very exciting time!! You raise an excellent point regarding funding from companies. It is often frustrating that scientific progression has to rely on funding from either private companies or governments. Of course, there are other (also important) areas that require funding, so what is the appropriate balance? I suppose a follow-on, slightly unrelated, question to your comment is, how much should scientific progress rely on private investment or government funding? As you suggested, it is something that will need to be discussed as we get closer to the reality Musk envisions!

  • bobo

    i would have loved the above article if i had not reviewed the following comments. i have no idea what the dense of atmosphere of mars before i read Mars has a very thin atmosphere, only 10% of Earth’s” it is an unforgivable error as an introduction to a science course. it should be as accurate as a textbook.

  • naideen

    good evening, the information above is very technical and very interesting. I recently was listening to a science program which indicated; cosmic rays may cause ‘space brain’ in astronauts going to Mars . This is the link:
    If you have time take a listen, I’ve listen to this program for over 8 years.

  • Carena

    Well, my take on the question “is 10 years a reasonable estimate to see the first human mission to Mars” comes from a historical approach. I look at the man on the moon situation where the US Government threw tons of money at NASA and there was a man on the moon in record speed. I forget who told me this but the key to getting what you want when you want it is to say “money is no obstacle” and then mean it. I think Musk means it.

  • David Partridge

    Another scientific question / observation. The speed of sound in a 75% / 21% atmosphere at Earth’s sea level pressure at 20 degrees C is indeed around 340 m/s. What effect does the 100 fold decrease in pressure, almost 100% carbon dioxide and -100 C temp have on that speed?

  • Darrin Taylor

    My take is that its only as expensive as the mass you bring. If you could build a lander that could get to mars and build robots that could colonize mars and make it ready for humans it could in theory be done for 100kg and perhaps 20 Million Dollars of transport cost. Thats expensive to you and I but not to Musk and friends.

    The trick is to make Mars civilization as light and as primitive as possible while still making it able to scale up in mass and in technology level.

    If we can figure out how to do this then it can be very in expansive on the order of 100 Billion dollars for the initial foothold with the exports paying for that 100 Billion over time. But the robots need to be able to reproduce. Because plants can already reproduce we need to focus on how we can make as much of the civilization plant/animal based. Then we can focus on the very difficult task of making a robot that can build a copy of itself.

    • naideen

      Love the idea about building robots that can build itself. I have only high school science but i love books, i once read a book called eat the frog, which is a book to help people with scheduling and projects. The author suggested doing the most difficult thing first. Anyway love all the comments, i’m looking forward to thaking the course and improving my science knowledge.

  • Bob

    Unfortunately people don’t stay in the boxes you give them. It’s called freedom, but I suppose you could always outlaw them too.

  • Andrei Gabriel Stroescu

    Guys, the atmosphere of Mars is only ~1%, not 10% as you mentioned in the article. Maybe typo, but it’s a difference of an order of magnitude. Thanks.

    “Mars has a very thin atmosphere, only 10% of Earth’s, which means that there is nothing to slow the spaceship down. “

    • bobo

      your comment is significant for me. thanks a lot

  • Caird

    Not sure this is really relevant to the topic but …… isn’t this the basis of communism? I think we’ve done that and moved on!

  • Ryan MacDonald

    I’ve noticed a few potential errors in this article that should be considered for correction:

    *Elon Musk’s ‘Red Dragon’ mission in 2018 is not a return mission. The Dragon will only be landing on Mars, it will not be capable of returning to Earth. Sample return missions may happen in later launches though, but not in 2018.

    *Why do you say the atmosphere of Mars is 10% that of Earth? The surface pressure (and hence density) of the atmosphere is <1% that of Earth. If you are referring to radial extent, then the scale height of the Martian atmosphere (11km) is actually 30% larger than that of Earth, not smaller.


    Ryan MacDonald
    University of Cambridge

  • clivve underwood

    getting there Yes, Getting back ?????

    • Maja

      Why getting back?

    • Damien

      Is he proposing a one way trip?