Why SpaceX Will Make It to Mars First

SpaceX’s goal to put humans on Mars may seem spacey, but they just might pull it off.

SpaceX plans to send a cargo ship to Mars by 2022 with humans to follow in 2024. 2022 is only four years away. Is this goal realistic or just bluster?

“I don’t think there is any question that SpaceX is going to get there before anybody else,” author Stephen Petranek told Den of Geek. Patranek is editor of Breakthrough Technology Alert and author of the book How We’ll Live on Mars, which was adapted into National Geographic Channel’s MARS series.

“NASA has the capability with a rocket, but doesn’t quite have the right vehicle to go onto the rocket, and they are not committed to actually landing on Mars,” Petranek continued. “They are only committed to doing a flyby of Mars or an orbit of Mars sometime in the 2030s. But SpaceX will get there first.”

SpaceX does have competition, though. 

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“Eventually we’re going to go to Mars, and I firmly believe the first person that sets foot on Mars will get there on a Boeing rocket,” Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg told CNBC in December.

Boeing is developing the Space Launch System for NASA, which is NASA’s next-generation heavy lift rocket for deep space missions. However, as Petranek noted, NASA does not plan to get people to Mars until the 2030s. Even then it will be in orbit.

In December 2017, President Trump announced new goals for NASA that reprioritizes the agency to, as NASA puts it, go “back to the Moon and on to Mars.” The new goals call for “the long-term goal of human missions near or on the surface of Mars in the 2030s.”

Muilenburg, like others, may be skeptical that SpaceX is taking into account the entire scope of the enormous task they have committed themselves to.

As an example of challenges that will need to be considered astronaut Leland Melvin, in an interview with Den of Geek, asked, “Will we have a vehicle big enough with enough radiation hardening to keep our bodies from being exposed by the time we get there?”

“I think the big thing is, how will your body react to the mission if it’s an eight-month mission? If you are not able to do resistive exercise and conditioning, your muscles atrophy and calcium leaks out of your bones,” Melvin added. “We have to have the right exercise equipment and all of those human factor things.”

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Although SpaceX has held press conferences to explain the technology they’ll use to get to Mars, there has been a concern about enough attention being paid to keeping people alive once they land. 

However, according to a recent report by Ars Technica, SpaceX appears to be getting more serious about these issues. Ars Technica was able to obtain a secretive SpaceX invitation to a workshop held last week at the University of Colorado “regarding what will be needed to make such missions happen.”

According to Ars Technica, SpaceX invited “nearly 60 key scientists and engineers from industry, academia, and government attending the workshop, including a handful of leaders from NASA’s Mars exploration program.”

This step to reach out to the community that can help SpaceX meet their Martian timelines has been taken as a positive step.

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“I have some confidence that SpaceX will eventually achieve its goal of getting to Mars,” a scientist attending the meeting told Ars Technica. “This feels like an exciting opportunity to be part of that story and to influence the future of humans on the Red Planet.”

“If we have the resources, we can do anything,” Melvin said. “We saw that in ten years we were able to get to the moon and back safely, and the country was behind that mission. The resources were there. So, if there is enough will, we will make it happen.”

Petranek agreed: “It is mostly a matter of money and commitment. The technology has been there for a long, long time.”

SpaceX has made that commitment and is moving steadily ahead to complete their goals. The Big Falcon Rocket (BFR), which SpaceX plans to use to transport cargo and humans to Mars, is under construction. SpaceX founder Elon Musk told the audience of a surprise Q&A session he held at the South by Southwest that the company plans to begin test flights of the BFR in 2019.

Musk has set out an aggressive timeline, but just when everyone begins to get skeptical, SpaceX seems to accomplish something extraordinary that reminds us they are a company that has repeatedly achieved the impossible. SpaceX is poised to be the first to make it to Mars, but what may be more shocking is that they might pull it off in much less than a decade from today.

Although, according to Musk regarding these timelines, “Five years seems like a long time to me.” 

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