SpaceX’s grand plans for Mars travel

“You’re gonna break some people” on the path to progress, COO says

President and COO of SpaceX, Gwynne Shotwell, spoke to MIT students about SpaceX’s plans to build a home on Mars at the “The Road to Mars” event in 10-250 last Wednesday, as part of Career Fair Week. Two days later, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk presented on the same topic to the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide.

“When Elon talked in 2002 about taking people to Mars, they thought he was crazy. But now the world has changed dramatically,” Shotwell said.

“Mission to Mars is a risk management for the human race. Something will happen on Earth and it would be important for humans to survive and go to a new place,” Shotwell told the audience, explaining the main motivation behind the project.

“Humans explore,” she added. “There’s no better way to do it than by going far away. This is the one place I out-vision Elon. Mars is not it. We should establish a settlement there, but we should go further. My favorite show was Firefly. We should go to other solar systems and galaxies.”

What about the consequences back at home? In response to an audience question about SpaceX’s impact on smaller enterprises, Shotwell said, “You’re gonna break some people, break some companies. But that’s the only way to make progress. If you’re doing crazy things and making an incredible impact but no one would care, what are you doing it for? Poke someone in the eye, you’re doing something right.”

Shotwell presented multiple videos of SpaceX’s rocket testing through the years, along with a blooper reel of failed attempts. “Failure sucks, especially when you’ve got customers’ payloads on top. But you do learn a lot from failures. It’s just best to not blow your customers off,” she quipped.

The demand for commercial space travel exists, Shotwell said: “There are a lot of wealthy people who want to pay a ridiculous amount of money to fly around to the moon on the weekends.”

Nevertheless, SpaceX aims to reduce the cost of the trip to the equivalent of an economy class plane ticket. To do so, SpaceX plans to reuse and improve the technology of launching stages. “There’s a criticality of recoverability. The real key is to be able to reuse the stage, understand them, go through them with a fine tooth comb, and re-fly them,” Shotwell said. “We are gonna charge only a one-way to Mars and you can come back for free.”

In order to ensure that a round trip is possible, SpaceX will need to equip the passengers with the required resources to return to Earth. Some of these resources will be gathered from Mars itself, Shotwell told The Tech after the talk: “Rocket propellant fuels are liquid oxygen and methane. You can make methane on the surface of Mars using resources from the soil.”

SpaceX has another project lined up called the Global Broadband Internet, which will be set up by arranging a “constellation of small satellites” around Earth.

The two key reasons for this project, Shotwell said, was to make “scads of cash” to pay for the trip to Mars and to put a constellation of satellites around Mars and as a bridge between Earth and Mars to enable communication for the Martian colonials.