SpaceX is almost ready to start building a permanent human settlement on Mars with its massive rocket spacecraft.
Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, said Friday (Oct.16) at the International Mars Society conference that the private spaceflight company is on its way to launch its first unmanned mission to Mars in less than four years from now.
“I think we have a combat opportunity to create a second Mars transition window,” Musk said in a discussion with Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society. You can watch the replay here.
That window Musk pointed out is a launch opportunity that appears every 26 months for the mission to Mars. NASA, China and the United Arab Emirates launched missions to Mars in July of this year. The next window opens in 2022 with Musk indicating the opportunity to launch Mars in 2024.
The mission will be launched to the Red Planet aboard the SpaceX Starship, a reusable rocket and spacecraft kit currently under development at the company’s South Texas facility. SpaceX also plans to use the Starship for missions to the moon starting in 2022, as well as point-to-point flights around Earth.
Related: Starship and Super Heavy: SpaceX Vehicles Colonizing Mars in pictures
Musk said long ago that humans need to establish a permanent and self-sustaining presence on Mars to ensure “consciousness continues as we know it” – only in the event that the planet Earth is left uninhabitable due to a nuclear war or asteroid strike.
But SpaceX doesn’t have any plans to actually build a base on Mars. As a transportation company, its sole goal is to transport goods (and humans) to and from the Red Planet, making it easier to develop a Mars base for someone else.
“SpaceX faces its single biggest challenge, which is the transportation system. There are all kinds of other systems that will be required,” said Robert Zubrin, founder of the Mars Society, during the conference.
“I personally hope that we will see the spacecraft in the stratosphere before the end of this year, and if Elon is right, we will reach orbit next year or the following year,” Zubrin added. “This will change people’s minds about what’s possible. And then, you know, we’ll have NASA seeking to fund the remaining parts of the puzzle or entrepreneurs stepping in to develop the remaining parts of the puzzle.”
If Musk’s predictions are correct – he is known for providing overly ambitious timelines – the first SpaceX mission will launch to Mars in the same year that NASA astronauts return to the moon as part of the Artemis program. SpaceX is also planning to take two tourists to space on a spacecraft mission around the moon in 2023. NASA has also chosen SpaceX as one of three commercial teams to develop lunar landers for the Artemis program.
Musk said Friday that were it not for the orbital mechanics that require launching Mars every 26 months, SpaceX might have a chance to send or try to send something to Mars in three years, Musk said, adding that Earth and Mars would not be in the best position. “But the window is four years away, because they are in different parts of the solar system.”
Musk unveiled plans for the SpaceX spacecraft in 2016. The project aims to launch a 165-foot (50 meters) spacecraft over a massive booster for deep space missions to the Moon, Mars and elsewhere. Both the enhanced Starship and Super Heavy will be reusable.
This year, SpaceX launched two test flights of spacecraft prototypes, called the SN5 and SN6, from the Boca Chica test site in Texas. These flights reached an altitude of 500 feet (150 meters).
SpaceX is currently preparing another prototype of the Starship, called SN8, for a test flight of 12 miles (20 kilometers) in the near future.
Email Hanneke Weitering at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @hannekescience. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.