Elon Musk says he will put millions of people on Mars

New Scientist – Musk declared recently that he could put a human on Mars in 10 to 20 years’ time. It is a remarkable claim, yet even more astonishingly Musk tells me that he could do it for $5 billion, and possibly as little as $2 billion – a snip when you consider that the International Space Station (ISS) has cost at least $100 billion to build and operate, or that $2 billion is roughly the cost of launching four space shuttle missions.

UPDATE – This story is #4 and climbing on ycombinator hacker news

Musk doesn’t just want to stop at one human. In his Heinlein prize acceptance speech, he said he wants to put 10,000 people on Mars. Musk rarely makes public statements merely for effect but a call for 10,000 would-be Martians is extraordinary, even by his standards. When I query him on this point, he pauses. Is he reconsidering? Yes… but, as with so much else about Musk, not in a predictable way. “Ultimately we don’t really want 10,000 people on Mars,” he says, after letting the pause linger a few seconds more. “We want millions.”

Spacex Falcon Heavy

SpaceX is now preparing to send the Dragon capsule to dock with the ISS early next year. Dragon’s closest competitor, the Orion capsule built by the US aerospace company and long-time NASA partner Lockheed Martin, won’t attempt such a feat until 2013 at the earliest.

As well as making history, SpaceX is making money. Last year the company signed a $492 million deal to launch Iridium satellites, the largest single commercial launch contract in history. It also has a $1.6 billion contract to service the ISS, with options to provide another $3.1 billion’s worth, too.

Elon Musk says “We’ve not gone beyond Earth’s orbit in a generation. I want to change that. Rapid reusability is what will take us to Mars.”

In September Musk announced the company’s plans for developing a fully reusable space launch system. The concept would see the rocket’s first stage – the one that separates at the lowest altitude – reignite its engines and coast to a vertical landing at the launch site. If that sounds tricky, the following part of Musk’s plan is harder still.

The rocket’s second stage, which would be well into orbit after delivering its payload, needs to flip nose-first and endure the fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere with a special heat-shielded nose cone, before flipping over again, firing its engines and landing like the first stage. Even if it works, the extra fuel and heat shielding are likely to add weight and cost, which could make Musk’s reusable rockets far more expensive than his current Falcon line-up.

“Reusability is ridiculously hard,” he says. “But it’s the thing we’re working hardest at.”

Musk is eventually hoping to build this kind of reusability into SpaceX’s newest launch vehicle, the Falcon Heavy. Scheduled for testing in early 2013, Falcon Heavy will be the largest rocket flown since NASA’s Saturn V launched astronauts to the moon. Musk says that a reusable version of the rocket could deliver a payload of up to 15 tonnes to Mars at a cost of $100 to $200 per kilogram. That makes his $5 billion humans-to-Mars price tag seem realistic. Even so, the Falcon Heavy would need to be “heavier” still to carry the minimum 50-tonne payload needed for a Mars mission. But Musk, whose title at SpaceX is CEO and chief technology officer, is working on that too.

btw- expect a rant in the comments from an anti-spacex Mars commenter.

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