Get Ready to Go to Mars

A year ago, I delivered a talk at the main TED conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, predicting that SpaceX would land humans on Mars long before NASA does, probably by 2027. (You can see the talk, which has just been posted on the TED.com website, here.)

Just two months earlier, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk had told me he planned to put people on the Red Planet by 2025. Really? With a little pushback, he revised the statement and said he would be “deeply disappointed” if he had not succeeded in that effort by 2030.

A lot of attendees at the conference seemed shocked at the notion and even more spooked by Musk’s contention that he would be able to send 1,000 rockets with 80 people aboard each to Mars by 2050 — 80,000 people all in one trip. One of the disbelievers in the audience that day was Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who would soon thereafter launch his first booster stage of a Blue Origin rocket. A friend at the conference who had dinner with Bezos that night said it took the entire table of diners to convince him Musk could probably do it.

Four months after the talk, last July, Simon & Schuster published my book,How We’ll Live on Mars. I then did dozens of radio and TV shows on the subject, including an hour onThe Diane Rehm Show.

DuringThe Diane Rehm Show, Jim Green, head of planetary sciences at NASA, called in and seemed to agree that although Musk’s schedule is optimistic, he might just pull it off. Nonetheless, the one thing I could count on whenever I did a call-in radio show was a sense of disbelief from the audience.

Then the movie version ofThe Martiancame out last fall and suddenly a skeptical public began changing its mind. Seeing — even when it’s science fiction — seemed to be believing. Although you could drive a Curiosity rover through the hole of bad science in The Martian, a movie somehow made it all seem more possible.

Then the movie version ofThe Martiancame out last fall and suddenly a skeptical public began changing its mind. Seeing — even when it’s science fiction — seemed to be believing. Although you could drive a Curiosity rover through the hole of bad science in The Martian, a movie somehow made it all seem more possible. Or perhaps it was the total effect of the movieGravityin 2013, the movie Interstellarin 2014 andThe Martianin 2015, a triple-whammy.

Recently, I interviewed Charlie Bolden, the head of NASA, for an hour for a video on a prominent website. I repeatedly asked if he thought SpaceX would beat NASA to Mars. He didn’t want to answer that question, though he confirmed that by the early 2030s NASA was committed to at least orbiting Mars with humans. He also got a little defensive and said there is only one outfit that has landed anything on Mars and made it operate, and that is NASA.

That, he said, is a historic first, no matter who lands a human on Mars first. (Well, he is fudging a bit. The Soviets successfully put their Mars 3 spacecraft into orbit around the planet in 1971 and then successfully put a lander on Mars, but it worked for only 20 seconds.) Bolden implied that if SpaceX puts a person on Mars first, it won’t be possible without NASA’s help. That’s certainly true. For one thing, SpaceX wouldn’t have a successful Dragon spacecraft shuttling between Earth and the International Space Station if NASA hadn’t awarded the company $398 million for the effort.

Both Bolden and Green, in a recent conversation, pointed out that 2018 was a critical year for sending something to Mars because the planets would be in a once-every-15-years position of being remarkably close to each other. Then voilà, a week or so later, a tweet from SpaceX announces, “Planning to send Dragon to Mars as early as 2018.” Dragon is the capsule SpaceX uses to resupply the International Space Station. NASA recently contracted with SpaceX to use a crewed version of the Dragon spacecraft to send astronauts to the space station next year. Since the last space shuttle flight, in 2011, NASA has been unable to put humans into space.

Musk is scheduled to announce at an international aeronautics conference soon that the architecture of the Mars Colonizer rocket that can carry 80–100 people at once. If SpaceX launches a Dragon spacecraft to Mars in 2018, it will be a learning mission and will not carry humans aboard. It would be the first private venture into space beyond Earth orbit.

Mars is in the zeitgeist, and we’ll be hearing and seeing a lot more about it.

To your health and wealth,

Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

P.S. To read more in-depth articles on the prospects for success on a manned mission to Mars as well as other cutting-edge technology updates and how you can benefit from owning the hidden companies driving the biggest advances in high-tech right now, click here to subscribe to Breakthrough Technology Alert written by Stephen Petranek