Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars with SpaceX but has yet to explain how people will survive there

elon musk spacex mars colony rocket spaceship bi graphics 4x3
Elon Musk wants to
colonize Mars with SpaceX.

Pelisson/Business Insider; Getty Images; Shutterstock;

  • Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, has unveiled a new
    design for a 100% reusable rocket and spaceship to colonize
  • SpaceX has experience building traditional life support
    systems for its Crew Dragon capsule, a spaceship built for
  • But independent spaceflight experts say technologies
    that don’t yet exist are necessary to keep Martian colonists
  • Musk and SpaceX have yet to detail exactly how
    hypothetical Mars explorers and colonists will

At a spaceflight conference in Australia on Friday, Elon Musk
unveiled an audacious new plan to build
giant reusable spaceships
and colonize Mars with them.

Industry experts are excited by Musk’s vision to back up the
human race by putting
1 million people
on a new planet, but many have practical
questions for the tech billionaire and founder of SpaceX. Above
all, they’re eager to know how Musk plans to keep people alive on
Mars for months or years on end.

Musk’s latest talk at
the International Astronautical Congress 2017 in Adelaide updated
a roughly
one-hour presentation
that he gave at the same event in
September 2016.

“The future is vastly more interesting and exciting if we’re a
space-faring civilization, and a multi-planet species, than if
we’re not,” Musk said on Friday. “I can’t think of anything more
exciting than going out there among the stars.”

spacex bfr mars ship earth space station resupply
illustration of Elon Musk and SpaceX’s “Big F—ing Rocket”
(white vessel, center) docked to the International Space


Musk first unveiled his Mars vehicle design — which he used to
call the “Interplanetary Transport System” but now calls the “Big
F—ing Rocket” (BFR for short) — during IAC 2016.

The original rocket-and-spaceship vehicle was supposed to tower
400 feet, or slightly higher than a
Saturn V moon rocket
. It was designed to bring up to 300 tons
of spaceship cargo — about two blue whales’ worth of mass — into
orbit around Earth.

Musk’s latest BFR design is about 50 feet shorter, and its
spaceship is supposed to carry about half the payload. SpaceX has
already built and tested
key pieces
in hopes of launching its first mission to Mars in

“That’s not a typo. Although it is aspirational,” Musk said when
the date appeared on-screen at the event. “I feel fairly
confident that we can complete the ship and be ready or launch in
about five years. Five years seems like a long time to me.”

Musk hopes to fly four additional ships to Mars in 2024,
including two cargo missions and two ships carrying the first
Martian explorers. From there, an increasing number of missions
could establish and grow a colony.

“You can do it, Elon!” a man shouted from his seat after hearing
these details at the conference.

Some spaceflight engineers and experts, however, are wondering
whether he can.

“Elon lays out an impossibly large vision, and then revises it
slightly downward — and people say he’s being practical. This is
no more practical than it was last year,” John
, a space policy expert,
, and spaceflight historian at George Washington
University’s Space Policy Institute, told Business Insider.
“There are so many questions on the viability of this plan.”

Big on ambition, thin on details

mars colonization bfr spaceship elon musk spacex iac 2017 talk
Reusable spaceships might
enable SpaceX to colonize Mars.


According to Musk’s new plan, two uncrewed missions would pave
the way for future human exploration of Mars. The first would
locate sources of water in the soil, and the second would set up
a chemical factory to turn that water, plus carbon dioxide in the
thin Martian air, into oxygen and methane rocket fuel.

After the first people land on Mars, regular cargo launches would
resupply them with food and other essentials.

D. Marshall
, the former director of NASA’s Space Life and
Physical Sciences Division, said SpaceX’s reusable rocket
technologies are “a huge game-changer” in terms of lowering

steep launch costs
and enabling such missions.

“He totally changed the economics,” Porterfield, now a professor
at Purdue University, told Business Insider during the
university’s “Dawn
or Doom
” conference before Musk’s latest talk.

For example, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and upcoming
Falcon Heavy
rockets can
reuse their boosters
. These enormous parts represent about

70% of the rockets’ cost
, and by not throwing them away after
every launch — the standard industry practice — the
savings add up quickly

A fully reusable rocket and spaceship, as Musk is proposing with
the BFR, would compound the savings and open access to space even
further by lowering costs 100- or even 1,000-fold, according to

“We could assemble space exploration capabilities in orbit
[around Earth] and launch a mission to Mars from there,”
Porterfield said, adding that the first crewed Martian missions
will be like “vacations” compared to the “camping trips” of the
Apollo program.

“The scenario in ‘The Martian’ is completely doable,” he said,
referencing the sci-fi book
and movie
in which a NASA astronaut is accidentally stranded
at a Martian outpost.

spacex bfr mars colonization plan schematic
A graphic showing SpaceX’s
basic plan to begin colonizing Mars.


Indeed, SpaceX may have the expertise it needs to get the first
explorers to Mars and back alive.

The company already built the environmental control
and life support system
, or ECLSS, that keeps astronauts
alive and comfortable on its Crew Dragon spacecraft.

NASA is counting on Dragon to ferry its astronauts to and from
the International Space Station starting in 2018. (Russia’s Soyuz
spacecraft is current the only ride to orbit — and it’s recently

quadrupled ticket prices
.) SpaceX is even pondering a
privately funded
mission around the moon
using Dragon and ECLSS.

In his IAC talks,
Reddit chats
, and other public statements, however, Musk has
not detailed how SpaceX will keep the first Martian explorers

crew dragon environmental control life support system module
environmental control and life support system, or ECLSS, inside
the company’s Crew Dragon space capsule.


When Business Insider contacted SpaceX for details about its Mars
life support plans and responses to expert commentary, a
spokesperson declined to comment and instead emailed several of
Musk’s prior public statements.

One came from his IAC 2016 talk, when Musk compared Mars to
California in the early US, and said SpaceX is trying to build
the Union Pacific Railroad.

“Once that transport system is built, then there’s a tremendous
opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars and create
something new or build the foundations of a new planet,” Musk
said at the time.

Musk also said he expects SpaceX’s Mars effort “to be a huge
public-private partnership,” and that the company is “trying to
make as much progress as we can with the resources that we have
available.” He added that he hopes his plans spur companies to
develop their own competing and innovative approaches, and that
colonizing Mars — no matter who gets the job done — is his goal.

Porterfield believes the company needs systems that currently do
not exist.

“His idea about colonizing? That’s going to require …
bioregenerative life support capabilities,” he said.

Using life to support life

potatoes mars greenhouse illustation nasa saic
illustration of a Martian greenhouse.


The idea behind bioregenerative life support, which Porterfield
worked on at NASA, is to collect a human crew’s breath, liquid
waste, and solid waste — then use plants and other life forms to
recycle it into food, water, and air.

This would reduce the need for resupply missions and help ensure
a crew’s long-term survival. It would also make a colony vastly
more sustainable, affordable, and independent.

“Biological systems are really resilient,” Porterfield said.
“They tend to be self-healing, self-repairing, so that’s one of
the advantages of a bioregenerative life support capability.”

Spacecraft today don’t rely on bioregeneration to keep people
alive. Instead, they use traditional life support systems —
pumps, filters, compressors, chemicals, and the like. SpaceX’s
ECLSS is one such system.

Research into these traditional systems flourished during the
Cold War, and more recent developments have turned out new
capabilities. For instance, the space station recently got a new
chemical-mechanical system that can recycle — with 93% efficiency
— an astronaut’s
, evaporated sweat, and breath into
drinking water

Research into biological life support systems also occurred
during the Cold War, though to a far lesser extent — for example,
one Soviet experiment used algae to generate oxygen inside sealed
nuclear bunkers. Since then, a few experiments in orbit and on
the ground have shown it’s possible to
grow edible plants in space
in Martian soil

Yet Porterfield said “tremendous challenges” must be overcome
before any biology-based technology can fully and reliably
keeping people alive in deep space.

“It’s not just a module you can stick on to grow some plants in,
and have some fresh salads every once in awhile,” he said. “We’re
really talking about technology that replaces what the Earth
does. This is our current bioregenerative life support system.”

In his talk at the “Dawn or Doom” conference, Porterfield brought
up the Biosphere 2 experiment in Arizona as an
example of the challenges. Eight people lived in the sealed,
three-acre habitat for two years with a bounty of plants and
animals — yet they quickly encountered problems severe enough to
require outside help, including pumping in oxygen.

biomass production chamber experiment potatoes kennedy sapce center nasa
grown hydroponically in NASA’s Biomass Production Chamber


A more compact and successful experiment was NASA’s
Biomass Production Chamber
— a giant, sealed greenhouse built
inside a hyperbaric chamber at the Kennedy Space Center. The
chamber broke world records for food production with a variety of
crops from the late 1980s through the early 2000s.

But NASA’s space greenhouse was scrapped in the 2000s, along with
other research into biological life support, due to congressional
budget cuts.

“NASA basically gutted the entire future of spaceflight
exploration in order to finish building the space station, and we
really haven’t fully invested in supporting the sciences required
to use the space station today so that we can be competitive,”
Porterfield said.

He added that China is poised to overtake the US in
bioregeneration with its
“Lunar Palace-1” experiment
, which has sealed four students
inside a habitat with plants and animals for a year.

‘They really don’t have a science program’

A few years ago, when Porterfield worked for NASA, he and some
colleagues were invited to SpaceX. Musk pitched a flyby mission
to Mars that’d cost about $600 million, and Porterfield and his
colleagues were interested.

“They were going to launch a payload, orbit Mars, and bring it
back to Earth,” he said. “For us it would have been a great
opportunity to look at radiation environment out beyond the Van
Allen Belts, because right now we’re at the space station, where
we’re shielded from that deep-space radiation.” (Musk has
downplayed the risks of space radiation, though new research
suggests it could be
twice as dangerous at Mars
as previously thought.)

Porterfield thought NASA higher-ups would bite, but they
ultimately passed on SpaceX’s offer.

“During that time, though, I learned they [SpaceX] really don’t
have a science program, per se, that would enable them to really
consider … bioregenerative or even just greenhouse-type of
technologies in a Mars architecture,” Porterfield said.

Logsdon offered a similarly skeptical assessment.

“SpaceX is a very good engineering firm. Certainly they’re going
to design a system that makes every effort for high level of
safety,” Logsdon said. “But they haven’t said a word about how
people will survive once they get to Mars. It just isn’t a part
of their capabilities.”

spacex bfr mars rocket landing twitter

Despite NASA’s budgetary de-emphasis on bioregenerative programs,
Porterfield said he hasn’t noticed any staff migrations that
suggest SpaceX might be acquiring expertise to research
bioregenerative capabilities (though he noted he does not keep
close tabs on SpaceX’s hiring

If Porterfield had a chance to ask Musk any questions about his
Mars plan, he said he’d focus on life support.

“I’d directly ask him, ‘What are you doing in terms of
countermeasures for crew health? What’s your thinking in that
area? Are you just going to, in the moment of finalizing your
Mars architecture, are you going to adopt the current
countermeasures and polices that NASA is doing?'” he said. “Maybe
that’s enough. But in terms of other aspects of biological
foundations for human exploration, it may not be enough.”

Disclosure: The author of this post was also a speaker at the
“Dawn or Doom” conference.

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