SpaceX founder Elon Musk has announced his company’s intention to create reusable rockets. The goal? A permanent colony on Mars.
Musk thinks the proven SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket [Video] can be modified for lunar and Mars missions—even colonization.
At an address to the National Press Club September 29, 2011, Musk stated: “A fully and rapidly reusable system is fully required for life to become multi-planetary, for us to establish life on Mars. If planes were not reusable, very few people would fly.”
The Falcon 9 booster successfully carried the Dragon space capsule into low Earth orbit in 2010. Its next milestone is a mission to the International Space Station set for January 2012.
The allure of Mars
The idea of getting a foothold on the Red Planet is something that has intrigued space enthusiasts as far back as American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard.
Another visionary, Dr. Wernher von Braun, dreamed of establishing bases on the Moon and Mars too. During the 1930s von Braun tried to interest officials of the Third Reich to fund his “Projekt Mars und Sterne” (Project Mars and Stars). But the grand design was eclipsed by the realities of war and von Braun turned his talents towards the Vengeance weapons V-1 and V-2.
Along the way he created the first ballistic missiles.
The once Nazi scientist and brains of NASA’s early years formally “made the first engineering analysis of a manned mission to Mars in 1948.” [Read about it here.]
Once asked by a reporter if traveling to Mars someday might actually prove impossible, von Braun smiled and replied, “I have learned to use the word ‘impossible’ with the greatest caution.”
Later, a contemporary of von Braun, Willy Ley working with Chesley Bonestall, impressed Walt Disney and captured the imagination of the world [von Braun and Ley] with stunning art depicting the future of Man in space. [1950s proposed Mars mission]
Wernher von Braun planned for a NASA manned Mars mission by 1983. Alas, it wasn’t to be.
What is SpaceX?
As NASA’s manned space program lies dormant, the privatization of space is rapidly moving ahead. SpaceX is one of the leaders.
“Officially the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, [SpaceX] is an American space transport company that operates out of Hawthorne, California. It has developed the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets, both of which are built with a goal of becoming reusable launch vehicles. SpaceX is also developing the Dragon spacecraft to be carried to orbit by Falcon 9 launch vehicles, and the Falcon Heavy super-heavy lift launch vehicle.” [Wikipedia]
Enter the ‘Red Dragon’
A forward-looking project named “Red Dragon” is being worked on as a joint project between NASA (Ames Research Center, Ohio) and SpaceX. The project’s goal is to develop a low-budget mission to Mars. Target date for the launch is tentatively set for sometime in 2012 assuming NASA can obtain the funding for it. The cost is estimated to come in at under 500 million dollars.
Red Dragon will set down on the surface of Mars and search for life. It’s a 42-year follow-up to the Mars Viking mission that some scientists are still certain discovered life.
As NASA had von Braun, SpaceX has Musk, an Internet pioneer and founder of Paypal. After making billions off the popular Internet banking and cash transfer site, he started SpaceX and later Tesla Motors.
Can he succeed where others failed and really create a cost-effective reusable launch system? “In the last 12 months I have come to the conclusion that it can be solved. We are going to try to do it. We have a design that on paper, doing the calculations, doing the simulations, it does work,” he said.
While von Braun aimed at the stars, Musk will be happy aiming for Mars.