Hello space nerds and Earth haters! I'm here to guide you through Elon Musk's big speech at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico, where the SpaceX CEO is expected to detail the company's master plan to turn Homo sapiens into a "multiplanetary species." The speech has been called "the biggest speech of Elon Musk's career" by various people on the SpaceX subreddit and a distant acquaintance on my Facebook news feed suggested that this speech will certainly usher in a new era of human history.
What I'm saying is that a lot of people are very excited for this speech. If SpaceX can put humans on Mars, both of those statements will probably turn out to be true, but at the moment it feels a little weird to look even a few years into the future. SpaceX, of course, isn't putting any rockets into the sky right now, and its biggest concern has to be figuring out what caused a Falcon 9 to explode while it was being fueled earlier this month.
The cruel irony of all of this is that while it's always a good time to go to low Earth orbit, Mars waits for no man or woman. There are very strict launch windows for going to Mars from Earth—the next window opens up in 2018, when SpaceX is expected to start launching supplied at the planet as part of its "Red Dragon" mission.
And so Falcon 9 problems or not, SpaceX must continue on its Mars-or-bust trajectory on a pretty fixed timeframe. I'll be here liveblogging Musk's speech in an attempt to make heads or tails of his master plan and to point out places where we're impressed or skeptical of it. Got a question, comment, or complaint? Tweet at me: @jason_koebler.
2:26 PM EST:
To kick things off, watch this video, which I must admit is far crazier and cooler than anything I was expecting. From the looks of it, the "Big Fucking Rocket" or "Raptor"—it's been called both—will launch a lander into Earth orbit, come back to the launch pad, load up a fuel pod, and then return to orbit to become an orbital gas station. Then the rocket will boost toward Mars, deploy some solar panels (perhaps a solar sail?) and land upright on Mars. It'll have a thrust of 28.73 million pounds, which would be roughly 4x that of the Saturn V, which is the largest rocket ever created.
Things to look out for in Musk's speech: How many people does he want to put in there? How many engines will the BFR have? What will the BFR actually be called? How many times will it refuel? How long will it take to get to Mars?
2:37 PM: Musk (or someone) is running kind of late—it was supposed to get started 7 minutes ago, and SpaceNews reporter Jeff Foust says that, just now, press started getting let in. We're not sure when it's going to start, but here's some ancillary reading you can do in the meantime:
- SpaceX was born because Elon Musk wanted to build a greenhouse on Mars
- If you're a company with satellites to send to Mars, you can book a trip on a Falcon 9 for $62 million or a Falcon Heavy for $90 million
- Elon Musk on Colbert, talking about a vague plan to bomb Mars's ice caps with nukes to help build an atmosphere there
- Musk says Mars will need entrepreneurs
- Musk has discussed a pretty wacky idea with legendary biologist Craig Venter to print terraforming life on Mars
- SpaceX is using high-powered graphical simulations to model the BFR. Of note: The BFR will use liquid methane, which is plentiful on Mars. Musk has been pretty adamant that he isn't interested in any one-way trips to Mars.
2:43 PM: There's life on the livestream—it seems to be starting and there are 58,000-odd people watching it. The American economy grinds to a halt.
3:00 PM: OK, this thing has actually started. Elon Musk has a pencil mustache, which feels like it's worth mentioning.
"Is there really a way anyone can go if you wanted to? That's really the thing," Musk says.
Musk says he wants to create a "self-sustaining city. Not an outpost, but a planet in its own right."
3:03 PM: Musk says Mars and Earth are "remarkably close in a lot of ways." Implies that he's not really a fan of Venus cloud cities.
He says that we have to "change the bottom row—we have 7 billion people on Earth and 0 on Mars." Musk also says being on Mars "would be quite fun" because it has 1/3 the gravity of Earth. As someone who has been on the Vomit Comet in simulated Mars gravity, I agree.
3:06 PM: Musk says using "Apollo-style" methods, there is no one on Earth who can go to Mars. Too expensive.
He says he wants to make cost of going to Mars roughly $200,000. "Enough could afford to go and would want to do the trip that it would happen," Musk said.
3:10 PM: Musk says the rocket refuels in orbit because it saves the overall spaceship from being 5-10 times larger than it's designed as. Also designed to be able to produce fuel on Mars—it makes no sense to have a graveyard of rocket carcasses on Mars, he says.
3:16 PM: One thing I noticed as Musk plays the SpaceX simulation video again for the crowd: To get on this thing, you would ride up a ridiculously tall elevator. Musk says SpaceX thought about using a hydrogen-based fuel (like in The Martian), but ultimately opted for methalox (methane and oxygen) fuel because it's easy (as in, theoretically possible) to produce on Mars.
3:20 PM: Musk says re: the video you see above—"this is not what it might look like, this is what we plan to make it look like." Says it's a simulation and that the company wants to build to those specifications.
If you go to Mars you can come back. Which, if you're going to let your imagination / belief in Musk wander to a point where you buy into this plan, why not agree it's possible to come back?
Says he wants "upward of 1,000 spaceships or more," wants to build a "Mars colonial fleet" that will be going back and forth all the time.
3:23 PM: Human for scale
3:25 PM: Musk says he wants 100-200 people on each of these things and wants "a thousand ships." Ultimately wants "a million people on Mars," which he thinks will take between 40 and 100 years. The ships are made of carbon fiber. Side note: crazy carbon fiber materials work happening in university labs all over the country right now.
3:30 PM: Musk does not include Jeff Bezos's rockets in his rocket chart.
And here's a side-by-side comparison with the Saturn V, which, let's remember actually existed (not a slight, just need to keep in mind that SpaceX has a lot of work to do).
3:38 PM: Musk says in the distant future, Mars transit times could be 30 days. As I mentioned earlier, this all depends on Mars transit times. He compared it to the olden days of western migration or sitting on boring boats with diseases and whiskey and ye olde journaling. Here's a chart of transit times given launch date:
Musk promises "Zero G games" and movies and a restaurant on board. "It'll be, like, really fun to go. You'll have a great time."
— Jason Koebler (@jason_koebler) September 27, 2016
Musk is discussing costs and what it would be like to ride in the rocket, which, I must say, he's started to ramble a little bit. It feels almost like "oh yeah, and another thing." Something to keep in mind is that SpaceX has been singularly focused on getting to Mars since its inception. And so the company has done a lot of thinking about this, which is why it's such a detailed but kind-of-disjointed presentation—feels as though he is remembering stats and features as he runs through it..
He's now discussing timelines, cost, and funding—I'm gonna follow up on this later because these are obviously the most important things. Basically, this is what we thought it would all be, a sales pitch: "It's going to be a public-private partnership," Musk said. We'll see.
3:53 PM: Musk thinks it will take four years to build a test spaceship. Says it can be used, if SpaceX wanted to, for suborbital point-to-point flights. This means you can takeoff in New York City, fly to suborbital space, and land in Tokyo 45 minutes later. The economics of this are super tricky but it's something that other companies, such as Virgin Galactic, have also discussed. Doesn't sound like Musk really wants to do it, but it's an idea.
Also, toward the end of his speech, he finally admits that this all sounds incredibly difficult.
"It's going to cost a lot, good chance we don't succeed, but we're going to do our best," Musk said.
4:09 PM: To his credit, Musk always takes questions after his presentations. Second guy, a Burning Man man, asks him if Mars is going to be a "dusty, waterless shitstorm." Musk says he'll melt ice and stuff—really, he dodged the Mars toilet question.
4:20 PM: I'm gonna sign off—Musk has given us a lot to chew on, and we'll be analyzing it over the next, say, 10 years or so. Thanks for following along and see you on Mars.