On Friday, at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, Elon Musk detailed a revised plan to send passengers to Mars, outlining an approach that he says will be economically viable for the company. The plan hinges on a new plan for a rocket, larger than anything SpaceX has used in the past, yet smaller than the rocket Musk discussed using for this purpose at a conference in Mexico last year. Musk called the original, massive reusable rocket the Interplanetary Transport System, but offered few details last year as to how SpaceX would finance such a plan with their relatively limited resources.
“Now we think we have a better way to do it,” Musk said at the conference on Friday.
The new, all-purpose, reusable rocket and spacecraft could replace the rockets and craft which SpaceX currently uses, or plans to use in the future. “That’s really fundamental,” to the viability of the plan, according to Musk.
The new rocket would be nine meters in diameter, instead of the twelve meters Musk described last year. It would be able to carry 150 tons to low-Earth orbit, making it still more powerful than NASA’s Saturn 5, which brought astronauts to the moon.
For SpaceX plans to bring people to Mars, the new rocket would carry a spaceship with 40 cabins, which would each hold two to three people. In total, the craft would carry about 100 people on each flight. After launching, the rocket’s booster would return to Earth to be reused, while the spaceship would remain in orbit where it would refill methane tanks and oxygen propellant. It would then begin a months-long trip to Mars.
Musk emphasized that the smaller size would help the new rocket serve other purposes for SpaceX, which is key to the economic viability of the new plan. It could, according to Musk, serve in the roles now filled by the Falcon 9 rocket, bringing satellites into orbit, and cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station.
The spaceship could also potentially land on the moon. According to Musk: “It’s 2017. We should have a lunar base by now.”
The rockets could be used for transport on Earth, where no two points would be more than one hour apart for the rockets. It could make the trip from New York to Shanghai in just 39 minutes. On Instagram, Musk added that these journeys would be relatively affordable for travelers:
“Cost per seat should be about the same as full fare economy in an aircraft. Forgot to mention that.”
He said a cargo mission to Mars, without passengers, could launch as soon as 2022. When the orbits of the two planets would bring them close together again two years later in 2024, Musk suggested that multiple rockets could bring cargo and people to Mars.