Humans walked on the moon half a century ago, and it looks like we’re going back. NASA aims to send astronauts to the lunar surface over the next decade with the Space Launch System (SLS) and SpaceX Starship HLS, but SpaceX’s Elon Musk is aiming for a more distant target: Mars. He put in some very far-fetched deadlines for sending people to Mars, but now he’s doubling. In a recent interview, Musk said SpaceX will land the first humans on Mars in ten years, and that’s the worst-case scenario. It could be half as long if everything goes perfectly in the next Starship tests.
Musk made this prediction in an episode of the Lex Fridman podcast. The full conversation, which you can see below, lasts over two and a half hours. In it, the couple discuss Tesla autonomous driving technology, neural networks, memes and, of course, SpaceX. The conversation on Mars starts around 27 minutes.
In the past, Musk has speculated that colonization efforts could begin this decade, with a fleet of spacecraft assembling in Earth orbit before heading to Mars when the planets intersect. Musk has receded from that level of detail as Starship takes shape. While the vehicle has accomplished some truly impressive things, it’s hard to see how it could send dozens of people to the Red Planet in the span of a decade when it hasn’t even reached orbit yet. . Asked about the podcast’s timeline, Musk responded with a very pregnant pause. About 20 seconds later, he replied that ten years was the outer beach. The best-case scenario, he said, was only five years.
Currently, NASA is hoping to land Artemis 3 on the moon in 2025, but that timeline looks suspect due to delays with the SLS and updated spacesuits. SpaceX is in the early stages of designing the Starship variant that will land the crew on the lunar surface. If these issues cause Artemis to be delayed again, Musk’s proposed timeline could put people on Mars before the moon. It seems like a long road, but it would be an incredible accomplishment and a blame for traditional government contractors if it did happen.
Getting Starship to Mars is primarily an engineering issue. The goal with this vehicle is to reduce the cost per tonne of reaching Mars to the point where human presence is possible. According to Musk, no amount of money will get you to Mars just yet. In the past, Musk has cited 2026 as the year he thinks SpaceX will land its first Martian astronauts, but a lot could go wrong by then. The spaceship still needs a lot of work, and the Super Heavy booster on the first floor hasn’t flown at all yet. Whether or not Musk is right to reach Mars in five years, SpaceX is in the best position to take a chance.
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