It’s a day that ends in “y”, so Elon Musk is being asked to make a prediction about when human beings will land on Mars. This time, Musk said that we’ll be on Mars in less than 10 years, which is definitely an ambitious target.
When asked when he thinks SpaceX will land humans on Mars, Musk replied: “Best case is about five years, worst case 10 years.”
The biggest hurdles for SpaceX to clear, Musk said, is engineering a vehicle that can optimize tonnage into orbit and then onto Mars. “Starship is the most complex and advanced rocket that’s ever been made,” Musk claimed, adding that “the fundamental optimization of Starship is minimizing the cost per ton to orbit and ultimately cost per ton to the surface of Mars.”
Currently, he said, you couldn’t even get to Mars for $1 trillion, so if you extrapolate this out, Musk hopes to reduce Starship operating costs by about $100 billion to $200 billion a year. Even by Musk’s mercurial standards, this would be an unprecedented feat of engineering.
For comparison, NASA budgeted about $546.5 million for its Mars exploration program in 2020 when it launched the Mars Perseverence rover and budgeted $6.88 billion in 2021 for the Artemis program, with Musk’s SpaceX getting a large chunk of that funding. NASA’s entire operating budget in 2021 was just under $25 billion.
Is Musk Exaggerating Again, or Could SpaceX Pull This Off?
So how realistic is this prediction? Musk is notorious for overpromising and underdelivering, the most obvious example being his claims about full self-driving tech in his Tesla electric vehicles, which even Tesla has admitted are exaggerated.
Why then should Musk’s claims about SpaceX’s capabilities be any different? While SpaceX has definitely pulled off incredible feats of engineering, these mostly involve innovations on what we’ve already been able to accomplish, namely putting satellites into orbit and docking with the International Space Station.
Starship, which Musk is banking on pretty heavily, hasn’t even made it into space yet, with orbital flights to start sometime next year. At the moment, Starship is unproven tech as far as space launches go, and while there is every reason to think that it will ultimately succeed, it has a number of milestones to hit before a Mars mission can be seriously considered.
The biggest of these will be the Artemis Moon landing, which is scheduled for sometime in 2025. That would give Musk’s SpaceX five years from the Moon landing to a Mars landing. Not out of the question, but certainly ambitious.
Still, we also need to remember that nobody thought you could reuse a rocket until SpaceX not only showed how it could be done but went and made it so routine that it is a key pillar of its wildly successful business plan.
SpaceX might not have gotten Starship into orbit yet, but it has repeatedly proved its doubters wrong, so even its boldest predictions can’t be easily dismissed. Besides, we definitely shouldn’t confuse humans landing on Mars and humans colonizing Mars.
If SpaceX managed to put a crewed lander on Mars in December 2031, a human stepped out onto its surface for a couple of seconds, immediately got back in the lander, and then flew back to Earth, Musk would technically have delivered on this prediction, and this scenario is not nearly as out of the question as it might seem.
For one, a trip to Mars on Starship should take about eight months, with a round trip taking about a year and a half. By 2031, NASA hopes to have a permanent base on the Moon, which will have to be self-sustaining to some degree, and that technology will make the long round trip to Mars much more feasible.
Also, lifting off from the Martian surface won’t be that much more difficult than lifting off from the Moon.
The Moon’s gravity is about 16.67% of Earth’s gravity, while Mars’ gravity is about 38% of Earth’s, so lifting off from Mars’ surface would need twice the velocity as you’d need on the Moon. The Apollo landers from 1969 to 1972 managed to get off the Moon just fine with far less than SpaceX will have at its disposal for a Mars landing and liftoff.
SpaceX has already demonstrated that it can safely land Starship from a high-altitude descent, so assuming it can do so after an orbital flight next year, all the pieces should start falling in place for a 2031 human landing on Mars.
A lot of things have to go right over the next decade though, so SpaceX certainly has its work cut out for it if it plans to live up to Musk’s prediction.