When Elon Musk dreams, he dreams big.
Musk, the founder of internet payment system PayPal and the head of the private space exploration company SpaceX, has been openly saying for years that he sees his private rockets and capsules taking astronauts to the Mars in the next decade. But this past week he has gone a step further, saying he envisions SpaceX not only transporting humans to the Red Planet, but actually establishing a bona fide city on its surface.
Musk revealed a tiny hint about his audacious dreams last week when asked by the press why he doesn’t plan on opening his venture on the stock exchange.
"The reason I haven’t taken SpaceX public is the goals of SpaceX are very long-term, which is to establish a city on Mars,” said the billionaire CEO in an interview at a press briefing in Tokyo on Sept. 8.
This appears quite ambitious, since NASA has pegged the mid 2030’s for their first manned expedition. However, space pundits are taking his claims seriously. After all, in the past decade his private rockets have begun to carry heavy payloads into low Earth orbit, and his spaceships have already begun to ferry supplies to and from the International Space Station. This is a feat that only a handful of nations have been able to accomplish.
But now Musk believes we must look way beyond, to the final frontier. The best hope for humanity’s survival, he says, is to colonize other worlds in the event of a planet-wide disaster that could wipe out our species, like a pandemic or asteroid impact.
“I really think it’s important that we’re on multiple planets and a spacefaring civilization so that sort of preserves the future of humanity, it’s sort of life insurance collectively.” Musk said in a TV interview with comedian Stephen Colbert.
The benefits of becoming a multi-planet species has not been lost on even the great mind of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who says that getting humans off our planet should be an imperative.
"Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space,” he said in a 2011 interview with The Canadian Press.
Back in 2012 Musk stated that he believes that the first group of Martian explorers would number about 10 and would lay the foundation for a self-sustaining colony that may eventually number up to 80,000 strong over many decades.
However, a big part of attaining that Martian prize for Musk may very well hinge on his space venture winning the $3 billion NASA contract to become the agency’s go-to astronaut taxi service to and from the ISS.
With the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011, the only way for Americans to get into space has been to hitch a ride on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. So while NASA’s own Orion spacecraft won’t be ready until 2021, it might very well be up to the private industry to get American astronauts back into space as soon as possible.
SpaceX is vying for the lucrative NASA contract with established aerospace giant Boeing and two other start-ups. The deal is worth $3 billion, and it appeared that SpaceX was the front-runner in landing the NASA deal. However, there may be a fly in the ointment for Musk, According to a report this week in the Wall Street Journal that reports that Boeing may win the competition.
Boeing announced this past June that their CST-100 crew transportation vehicle should be ready to rocket into space on its first flight in 2017.
Only two weeks earlier, Musk made a flashy unveiling of his manned version of the Dragon space capsule – to many in the industry, this placed SpaceX as the clear front runner in the race.
At this point we’ll have to wait and see which bid the American space agency will choose, and how it may affect Musk’s bold plans for Mars.