Let's face it: it looks like humanity might fail to save the Earth from global warming. That sucks, but Elon Musk and NASA are coming to the rescue. Both have plans to get us off this rock and colonize Mars, and—surprise!—it's all happening sooner than anyone thought was possible. Elon Musk and his rocket company SpaceX plan to put up a permanent colony on Mars as early as 2024, while NASA has stated that they plan to get to Mars by 2030. It's about frikkin' time.
Mars is the next logical step in space exploration because it has many similarities to Earth, and is relatively close. But many challenges remain. Still want humans to go there? Good. Because it's happening.
The New Space Race
SpaceX and NASA are the leaders in this new space race to Mars, but there are other players. These days, space travel isn't limited to ICBM-armed nations. The list includes a number of private companies owned by eccentric billionaires, like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Amazon-owner Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.
NASA, also known as the guys who sent mankind to the moon, has had plans to travel to Mars since the Apollo missions. Sadly, many of these initiatives were killed in the US Congress. These days, NASA is focused less on American vs Soviet style space races. They're looking to partner with/grow/incubate other space agencies and private companies to achieve their goals. That said, NASA is still among the leaders in the race to getting to Mars. They recently concluded a year-long simulation where six "astronauts" pretended they were living on the surface of Mars in total isolation—except they were actually in Hawaii.
SpaceX - Like a real life Tony Stark, Elon Musk is a billionaire, genius engineer, and starry-eyed dreamer. After selling his web startup (which included Paypal) to ebay, he put up SpaceX. These days, SpaceX is leading the charge in creating reusable rockets like the Falcon 9 and the Interplantary Transport System which SpaceX plans to use to bring colonists to Mars.
Blue Origin - Unlike SpaceX, the Jeff Bezos owned company hasn't announced any concrete plans to go to Mars, but what else would the New Glenn, their humongous rocket capable of sending large payloads into space, be for? It can also be argued that Blue Origins is ahead of the game. They haven't blown up a rocket since 2011. (Ahem, SpaceX, ahem.)
Boeing - Elon Musk may be soaking up all the media attention with his bold vision of Mars colonization, but meanwhile Boeing has been making space rockets for decades. They even built the Saturn V rocket.
"I'm convinced that the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding on a Boeing rocket," Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg told Bloomberg in an interview. Boeing is currently at work on NASA's Space Launch System, a massive next generation rocket.
Mars One - If Mars colonization sounds like a really good reality show to you, then put your money on these guys. Mars One plans to send colonists on a one-way trip to Mars for USD6billion, and they plan to raise the money by airing a reality show. You can't make this stuff up. If you plan on joining the reality show, it's a little too late for you. They've already narrowed down their list of applicants to 100. A total of 24 astronauts will be chosen, and none of them will be you, sorry.
Skeptics abound if Mars One will ever get their project off the ground. It is questionable if they will ever raise enough money from the reality show, and many experts say the proposed USD6billion budget won't be enough.
Inspiration Mars - The goal of Inspiration Mars isn't colonization—it's space tourism. Instead of landing on Mars, Inspiration Mars wants rich dudes to pay them money so they can do a flyby of Mars. They plan to send a man and a woman (preferably married) to the red planet in 2018 or 2021. Inspiration Mars was founded by Dennis Tito, the world's first space tourist. Naturally.
The future of Inspiration Mars looks all but dead at this point. The project planned to partner with NASA, and then with SpaceX, but they were basically turned down by both. Plus their website is down now, so game over?
It IS Rocket Science
Job number one on the checklist to colonize Mars is figuring out how to get all the stuff you need off of this planet. Like any interplanetary camping trip, you need a spaceship capable of getting to Mars, a habitat for the Mars surface, communications, food for a few years, vehicles to get around on Mars with, enough fuel to get your spaceship to Mars, and oh yeah, astronauts.
Elon Musk says that the cost of sending a person to Mars is USD10billion, but it can be lowered to USD200,000 per head. Much of this cost reduction has to do with employing large reusable rockets, like the booster section of SpaceX's Interplantary Transport System, or Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket. In the past, every time NASA sent a space shuttle into orbit, it threw away two boosters and a large orange fuel tank. But with today's reusable rockets, you can use the same booster to send spaceship components and colonists into orbit, assemble/dock the spaceship there, load up on all the fuel you need, and then head off to Mars -- which is exactly SpaceX's plan.
Launch 1 - 100 colonists get into the ITS and go into orbit. Booster returns to Earth.
Launch 2 - Booster is refueled and refurbished. On the second launch, a propellant tank (fuel for the ITS's engines) is sent into orbit. This time, there are no colonists. The ITS is filled with as many propellant tanks as it needs and heads off to Mars.
54.6 Million Kilometer Road Trip
If you commute daily to work in Manila traffic, this trip will be nothing to you. So far, only SpaceX has given any kind of details on its planned excursion to Mars. It goes a little something like this:
From Earth orbit, the Trans-Mars joyride begins. Six vacuum-optimized engines will accelerate the ship to 19,014mph. That's right. In space, no one can hear you scream.
Traveling at such a mind-boggling speed means that travel time is around three months, or slightly shorter than it takes to get from Cubao to Makati. There won't be much to do, but Elon Musk has got you covered. He says that there will be an on-board pizzeria in the ITS. "It will be like, really fun to go, you'll have a great time," Elon Musk said. Okay, Elon, what are you smoking, and can we have some please?
How To Colonize the Red Planet
If you've watched Matt Damon growing potatoes in The Martian movie, you basically have the idea. Gravity is 38% that of Earth, meaning Earthlings will lose muscle mass and bone density if they stay there for long. It's cold -- -5 degrees Celsius on warm days and -87 degrees Celsius when things get nippy. And the atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide. So basically insta-death should you step out of your spacesuit.
Scientists propose that terraforming Mars to make it habitable for humans will require three things: building up the magnetosphere, building up a breathable atmosphere, and raising the temperature. But before all that terraforming can happen on our new home, we have to get to Mars first.
The Spaceships We'll Use To Get There
It takes some heavy lifting to get all the stuff and people to Mars. Here are the rockets that will (probably) get us there.
SpaceX's Interplanetary Transport System (the spaceship formerly known as the Mars Colonial Transport)
- 17m in diameter
- Carries 100 colonists
The ITS booster
- The ITS together with booster is approximately 40-storeys tall, or 400 feet
- Powered by 42 raptor engines
- Reusable booster
Blue Origin's New Glenn
- New Glenn 3-stage
- 313 feet tall
NASA Space Launch System
- In its largest cargo configuration, it is 365 feet tall
- In its crew configuration, it is 364 feet tall
Saturn V rocket (for comparison)
- 363 feet tall
Space X Falcon 9 Heavy Rocket (for comparison)
- 84 feet tall
How to Colonize Mars
SpaceX has a number of unmanned trips to Mars planned before it sends colonists in 2024. These trips will be for research as well as to deliver cargo to the surface of Mars. They're planning to send a rocket to Mars every 27 months.
Getting off Earth
Heavy rockets will transport the spacecraft, the colonizers and enough fuel/propellant to get to Mars.
Mars is 54.6 million kilometers away from Earth. Don't worry, there's going to be a pizza parlor on the SpaceX ITS, so, you know, you can pizza and chill.
Landing on Mars
Mars has 0.38 the gravity of the Earth. This means any colonists will have to land there like the Falcon 9 lands on Earth.
Building a new home on Mars is the first thing the colonists will set out to do.
The details are sketchy, but any terraforming of Mars will be about rebuilding the magnetosphere, building a breathable atmosphere, and raising the temperature of the red planet.
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