In September of 1962, President Kennedy made that famous speech where he promised the world that the US would send people to the moon and bring them back. At that moment, America hadn't even been able to put a person into orbit yet. The promise of walking on the moon was so audacious that even many inside of NASA thought it might be impossible.
We did manage to do it, but in 1962, NASA—which was only four years old at this point—didn't know how to make it happen. The final plan, using spacecraft that would separate and dock in Lunar orbit, was considered too risky in early planning. It took the nineteen launches of the Gemini program to incrementally discover what was possible, and ten Apollo launches to sequentially test all the steps leading up to that first footprint.
In 2002, Elon Musk created a private spaceflight company called Space Exploration Technology Corporation—usually just SpaceX. Private spaceflight has, historically, been a guaranteed way for people to go broke. Thirteen years ago Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic was founded with a working
suborbital spaceship, spent hundreds of millions of dollars, and as of today have far clocked exactly zero minutes in space. So SpaceX was thought to be a fanciful idea.
But Musk wanted to do more than do what other companies had done. Most rockets just dumped their spent stages into the ocean (or sometimes on farm houses
). Even the reusable Space Shuttle discarded its fuel tanks. But Musk wanted Space X to land and reuse the first stage, propulsively landing it on its tail, like a 1950's science fiction rocket. Even experienced rocket scientists said it was a crazy idea.
There were years of incremental work, some quiet successes and catastrophic failures (or, in rocket engineering parlance, 'Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly'). It took four launches before they got one that didn't blow up. But they eventually got to orbit—a first for a private company. Then they worked to just do that reliably, not bothering with reusability just yet. Then they started adding legs and fins so they could decelerate from near orbital speed. At first they smashed into the ground (or more accurately their floating landing boats) but eventually they landed safely. As of today, they've landed a dozen in a row, including two last weekend. One of those two had even flown and landed before, another first. They're currently offering trips to space at around 30% cheaper than the competition, and they have a backlog of seventy missions
worth more than $10 billion.
But Musk isn't done with the audacious plans. Earlier this year he gave a presentation on making humanity a multiplanitary species. He outlined a plan for how to reduce the cost of getting people to Mars by five million percent so it becomes affordable to move a million people (and the things they need to live) to the Red Planet over the course of a few decades. It's pretty easy to read as far a technical presentations go, and the full thing is available for free until July 5th
. But it is a crazy idea.
There has, of course, been a lot of criticism. The paper is only sixteen pages long, most of it charts and graphs, so there are a lot of details missing. But this is how you figure things out, especially the crazy ideas. You start with what you know, drawing borders around your ignorance and explore from there. SpaceX plans to send people around the Moon next year. With a timeline like that, Mars might not be that far off.