Elon Musk Targets Orbital SpaceX Starship in 2021 and Unmanned Mars in 2024

Elon Musk spoke for nearly an hour at the 2020 Mars Society Event. Elon said that he was 80-90% confident that the SpaceX Starship would reach orbit in 2021.

Elon was interviewed by Robert Zubrin.

Elon wants to make a city on Mars self-sustaining to offset the risks of a disaster on Earth.

Confidently getting one million tons to Mars needs 5 million tons to low earth orbit. This requires fully reusable rockets.

If we someone tried to make an expendable airplane or car then you would be laughed out of the room. Those would be vehicles for single once and one way and then losing the vehicle.

If someone suggested an expendable horse. People would laugh at you and think you were mentally ill.

Making a fully reusable rocket work would be to start with an expendable rocket that would get 4% of the mass as orbital payload. Half of the payload launch capacity would be sacrificed for full reusability.

Achieving rocket payload efficiency is helped by making a larger rocket.

In 2022, SpaceX should be reaching high volume reusable rocket flights.

Elon Musk wants to keep increasing the rate of innovation. If innovation is exponential then an unmanned mission could be sent to Mars in 2024. There must be rapid and radical innovation to achieve the goal.

The essential things for Mars development are:
Rapid and complete rocket reusability
Propellent transfer in orbit (NASA has provided $53 million in funding for a demonstration of fuel transfer in orbit)
Fuel production on Mars.

Elon thinks they have a shot at demonstrating orbital refueling in 2022. SpaceX going to the moon would be 2022-2023. The orbital refueling would enable 100 tons of payload to be sent in one shot to the moon.

Elon needs the intersection of people who want to get to Mars and the people who can afford to go to Mars to reach 1 million people. Mars Society needs to provide the will. SpaceX will provide the way.

Elon will probably just take unmanned vehicles that people or companies make to Mars. He seems to imply this would be free.

SOURCES – 2020 Mars Society Event, Elon Musk
Written By Brian Wang

34 thoughts on “Elon Musk Targets Orbital SpaceX Starship in 2021 and Unmanned Mars in 2024”

  1. I'm not sure where you get 4 square meters per person, I see 1100 cubic meters total payload volume, so 11 cubic meters per person. 2m x 2m x 2.75m including equipment, water and food storage, etc. etc. I agree this would be very tight, especially for several months in transit, then who knows how long before a base habitat was ready for occupation.

    The solution to this problem would be a cycler, so the starship could dock with a much larger living space while in transit, with lots more shielding, a large mass of water, hydroponics, etc. Even better if you give the whole thing a spin for simulated gravity. This also reduced the need for speed, have a nice relaxing ride to Mars.

  2. I'm basically in agreement, except I don't see a permanent, large scale human city of on Mars until it's determined there are zero low grav health effects. No one knows what the long term effects of .38g are since no one has spent more than 15 months in space at a time. Large scale colonization means families, which means people being willing to raise kids their. Sure, I could see skilled retirees and adventurous types living on Mars and being willing to die there. No argument from me there. But mom, dad, and their two kids? No way. The public isn't going to be willing to live there permanently if there's even a remote chance of any type of ill health effects. I would also offer that it's highly unlikely that the human body, having evolved in 1g, is not going to suffer from multiple, if not lethal, long term effects from .38g. Sure, we can handle some low grav, but 15, 25, 50 years? Intuitively, that seems unrealistic since we already know that astronauts suffer all sorts of effects from year long trips.


  3. Yes, exactly – except there needs to be a very strong motivation to drive those groups: Escaping oppression, getting rich, fear that competitors will dominate, etc. And it has to be broadly applicable, to achieve the large numbers of colonists desired.

  4. I wonder how much thought SpaceX/Musk have put into the business side of Starlink, at this point?

    Musk seems to prefer minimizing marketing expenses – they start at the premium end of the market, and work their way down to mass markets, which helps narrowly target marketing to early adopters and get lots of free press to expand beyond that group. Will that work in this case?

    E.g. yacht owners could be a largish group of eager early adopters, willing to pay a decent premium, and easy to target. That's assuming the Starlink dish will work for an unstable/moving platform. (SpaceX recently announced they're testing the 'space-lasers' for inter-satellite communication, which will be needed to cover the seas.)

    When will Starlink target less developed nations – e.g. create a turn-key station that provides Wifi data service for a poor village to share a single link?

  5. I doubt .38 g is going to outright kill people, since zero g doesn't. *Maybe* reduced lifespan, possibly irreversible changes such that you'd be an invalid if you returned to Earth, if it lasts long enough. Developmental changes might occur in children born there.

    But I napkined it, and a partial G test facility could be launched in a single Falcon Heavy launch, for maybe a quarter billion. Assuming you were doing more Skylab than ISS. So I'd say we've still got time to run the tests before the first manned trip to Mars.

    Once the Starship is flying, I don't know, you might be able to launch a couple into orbit, and just have them tied together bolo style, and they'd still be available to use after the partial gravity tests were done. Probably be tying ships together like that for the trip to Mars anyway.

    I expect the early colonists will actually be skilled retirees, willing to spend their last years doing something significant, then be buried on Mars.

  6. During the early colonization of North America from Europe, groups would pool their money to get a few of their members across the ocean, to establish a beach head, with the idea that more could follow later. I'd expect the same to happen with Mars.

  7. Available data rates will vary by location. If you're in an area with a lot of subscribers, (A city, maybe) low. If you're out in the middle of Montana, with only two other people in view of the satellite, max rate. And, of course, there will be premium customers guaranteed max rate regardless.

  8. Agree we should go to Mars. No need to wait, but most likely the first landing party wont be there permanently. I don't know the time table for when a favorable launch window back to the Earth would be, but I'll hazard a guess those guys will have to wait at least 6-12 months on Mars before they can head home. That should give the scientific community plenty of low grav data to crunch.

    Thinking mid term, say the 2025-2050 time frame, I expect we will see a series of these types of missions where astronauts spend 6-12 or even 24 months on Mars. Longer duration maybe if the low grav effects aren't detrimental.

  9. Should have built a rotating station and counter-weight to do gravity testing decades ago. We didn't.

    At this point I say we just go to Mars and see how things go. If we can't live well in .38g, we'll still have gone to Mars.

  10. An excellent, evidence-lacking point. Maybe, you're afraid that you will be taxed out the wahzoo. Your ephemeral connection between Elon and the election is not going to change any votes.

  11. 2025 – first colony is built on Mars. Twenty permanent settlers.

    2028 – permanent settlement abandoned due to the long term health effects of .38 gravity on the human body.

    I'm not anti-Mars, but before we get aboard the wagon train we should first put a small research station in place and plan on rotating its staff every couple years. Let's see if we can stay healthy for the long term before we start building a permanent colony.


  12. Translation " It's okay to steal from people if they make more money than me." and "Why should I have to work, people should just give me whatever I want?".

    Get a job and take responsibility for your own life.

  13. Starlink subscribers will probably have a a data cap, so they'll stream at lower resolution – acceptable for most videos.

    I wish Youtube/etc would implement "HD on pause" – i.e. no matter how low-def you watcn a video, if you want to look at a detailed diagram or chart in a video, pausing the video would pull down a high definition version of the frame you've paused upon.

  14. Maybe go for "The first million people to live on Mars own it in equal shares." That is, shares of a corporation holding title to Mars, leasing land, selling mineral extraction rights, etc, and initially spending most of that on improvements – spaceports, large domes, hospitals, etc.

    This might trigger a speculative land rush. Besides those who could afford the ticket and want to go, old-money rich looking to diversify their long term real estate investments might cut deals to train and send smart but poor young people in return for some of their shares. Governments might sponsor some as well, if only to prevent any other government from dominating the colonization.

  15. Free transport of other people's robotic rovers: Makes sense so long as it is with open data and the understanding that once it stops working, the rover becomes available for salvage…

  16. 1) If he does it at all it's a great achievement. But 2024 is his best case projection, and seems reasonable from that perspective. It would be an unmanned test flight which might, at most, preposition some supplies, and drop off some satellites and rovers to do a close examination of future landing sites.

    2) Agreed, and Musk has already suggested elsewhere that the Mars trip would typically be undertaken by end of lifetime ships, which would stay there.

    3-7) Absolutely agree. Mars needs junkyards! Only the engines need to come back.

    8) I've done some napkin level estimates of material requirements for building Mars habitats, and they're actually pretty low, especially if you can leverage your Sabatier reactor to produce native Spectra, which should be feasible. The habitats will just be big balloons covered with sandbags.

    9) If you're not willing to spend a long time crowded under uncomfortable circumstances, you're not Mars colonist material to begin with.

  17. Musk is pursuing the Mars colony as a backup for humanity in case a civilization/biosphere ending event occurs on Earth. The Moon is conveniently close, but it's really too close for Musk's purposes.

    For instance, suppose a disease appeared that was about as contagious as the common cold, or worse, but had deadly delayed effects. Regular commerce between Earth and the Moon would assure that it would reach the Moon, while the long flight time to Mars would act as a natural quarantine.

    Nuclear war could reach the Moon.

    A civilization ending asteroid strike on the Earth would throw up enough debris to bombard the Moon, too.

    The Moon is unlikely to achieve genuine self-sufficiency because travel to the Moon is too easy for genuine self-sufficiency to be economically rational.

    Mars makes sense from Musk's perspective because it's close enough to reach, but far enough to be a SECOND basket for Earth's eggs. The Moon is just too close for security.

  18. Just landing cargo there will go a long way To the goal of getting people onboard with making a colony. Maybe some way the colony can profit Earth would be good too..

  19. Musk is a far better steward and expenditor of his wealth and assets than any government could dream of being. The socialists are simply greedy for something they couldn't possibly earn and desire to use the force of government to re-distribute wealth so they can get their unearned cut. That's called communism and it lights the way back to the stone age. It's theft made legal under the guise of helping the poor.

  20. Musk would just take his ball and leave.

    And there is a difference between net worth and income. Musk keeps his taxable income small. The rest is tied-up in physical capital at Tesla, SpaceX, Boring Co., etc.

  21. I don't know if his numbers are right or your numbers are right, but the economics of SpaceX being able to build their own Mars colony was always shady at best. Their best bet if SpaceX wants to stay viable in the long run is to ride with NASA to the moon. In the meantime, they need to start convincing NASA and Congress that Mars is possible this decade and start directing funding to that goal. It's the only way they're going to be able to build a sustainable Mars colony is if they get the rest of the country on board. It's very doubtful they can go it alone and accomplish this.

  22. All of that is out the window should Biden get elected. He'll be wanting to tax Elon and SpaceX out the wahzoo.

  23. Overly optimistic. Maybe 2026. I am a Musk fan, but the Starship still needs work for a Mars attempt. Get it in orbit first, prove it then go for Mars. I Have a feeling nce they have orbital ability at the least the first few iterations of the ships will be for Starlink. That is the money maker. If they get to 20k sats (10 billion at 500k per) that can handle 7-10k connections each (economically and practically 7k+ connections is the min they really need to make it effective), so 14-20 million customers at 100 USD a month times 12 is 17-24 billion a year in revenue. If they replace 20% (5 year use life) a year at a launch cost of 500 sats with a Starship at 50 million (8×50 mil) per launch amortized for the vehicle cost. So 400 million for launch and 2 billion for the satellites per year(4k sats per year at 500k per sat), so lets say 3-4 billion a year to maintain the system once you factor in ground terminals. On the low end 15 billion in revenue and on the high end (assuming a Starship at sub-30 mil per launch) and 5 billion a year for maintaining the system its a venture that would generate 10-20ish billion in profit per year. Many people will pay 100 UDS a month for a 100+ mbps sub-100ms latency connection.

  24. Lots of good stuff there! Starting small and growing is the most efficient way, and partial independence is enhanced if the project is providing services back to Earth, as that will finance independence technology, almost as a natural result of launch costs.

  25. There is an unsupported assumption that a self-sustaining colony requires roughly a million people, hence a million tons to Mars, hence 5 million tons to LEO, hence the need for a fully-reusable super heavy lift vehicle. I chaired a track showing how the end goal could be achieved on the Moon with partially-reusable Falcon Heavies. Don't get me wrong, if Starship succeeds then a small, self-sustaining colony on the Moon would be achieved and a Martian city as well. So, thumbs up.

  26. "synodic: relating to or involving the conjunction of stars, planets, or other celestial objects."
    (the first result after a quick search.)

  27. Funny how all the Space stuff to actually DO is in Space, not on planet surface, where we might as well do it here. Counter intuitive, but true. "Fuel production on Mars." for example, but also fuel production on/from Moon., ideally in Space, where it is soooo easy compared to on Moon, or Mars, or Earth. Now there is major mag telling Musk to power beam from LEO sats, launched, at least at first, instead of Earth solar. Do stuff in Space!

  28. First uses even before space refueling which is not clear when it is to be achieved: Long haul space tourism including perhaps Moon, Mars and Venus orbit. Start of Long haul fast shipping here on earth. And of course the new standard for all short term space missions globally. All of this could generate enough money toward development toward missions to the surface of the moon, Mars and beyond, without the damage that the starlink financing scheme is expected to cause. Investors will stand in line if needed. Nasa will continue sending cash injections when there is a match with its programs. Progress may not continue according to Musk rosy projections with or without starlink, but nonetheless, it will move on.


  29. synod: an assembly of the clergy and sometimes also the laity in a diocese or other division of a particular Church.

  30. Yeah, given the state of Starship/Superheavy development, the 2022 synodic cycle is out of the table.

    But anything happening on Mars in this decade still is a big gain over government plans, and that gives them more time to test and develop the launchers, so it is OK.

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