Friday, September 30, 2016

Space - A Cosmic Ocean Elon Musk Intends to Sail

Speaking in front of a capacity crowd at the 67th International Astronomical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, SpaceX founder, CEO and chief designer, Elon Musk, boldly unveiled his futuristic plans for sending humans to Mars.

In his much anticipated speech entitled "Making Humans a Multiplanetary Spacies," the billionaire outlined his ideas for colonizing the red planet in his trademark thinking-out-loud style of speaking.
Musk speaking in front of a capacity crowd the the International Astronomical
Congress on September 27. credit:

He began by asking the question, "Why Mars?", before explaining that solar system real-estate is limited and that finding a prime spot is not as easy as people may think.

Musk stated that if a manned launch to Mars were to take place right now, a seat on board that ship would cost an astronomical $10bn per person. In other words, the system does not yet exist.

However, Musk's mantra has and always will revolve around driving down the cost of getting to space and making it accessible to all.

"The cost of a Mars ticket should equal the median cost of a house in the United States.. which is about $200,000" he went on to say. "You can't create a self-sustaining civilisation on Mars if the price is ten billion dollars per person."

This Musk explained, could only be achieved by addressing four key issues. These issues are:

-Full reusability
-Refilling in orbit
-Propellant filling on Mars
-Using the right propellant

If he succeeds in doing so, Musk believes he will be able to reduce the cost per tonne to Mars by five million percent, and in the process, facilitating the mass landing of around a million or so humans on our nearest neighbour by the 2060s.

While proclamations of slashing ticket prices to Mars were greeted with enthusiastic whoops and hollers from the crowd, the question that everyone wanted answered, was what exactly will this interplanetary space system look like?

Standing in front of a fifteen-foot-tall image of Mars, occasionally Musk would turn to catch a subtle glimpse of the revolving red globe, as if to remind himself that Mars was still there - that it wasn't so far away.

Getting to Mars
Blasting off atop a 254-foot booster from the same launch used on man's first voyage to land a man on the Moon, SpaceX's "Planetary Spaceship"(yet to be officially named, but Musk admitted that he would probably name the first ship "Heart of Gold" as a tribute to the ship used in "The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy") would firstly be delivered into a preliminary parking orbit around the Earth.
SpaceX System Architecture credit: SpaceX

The booster, similar in profile of returning a Falcon-9 first stage to Earth, would then return directly to the launchpad, refuel its tanker, and launch back up to the parked manned vehicle in orbit.

This refueling process would be repeated four more times before the interplanetary ship would get the green light to rendezvous with the red planet.

In what he described as something straight out of Battlestar Galactica, Musk said he hopes to include not one, not two, but a thousand Mars ships in a single fleet, with up to two hundred people per spacecraft.

The Planetary Spaceship will use its aerodynamic lift ability to enter the Martian atmosphere, and will come to a soft landing on the surface of the planet using its propulsive rocket system.

In theory, this would allow the Spaceship to land on any rocky body in the solar system, and provided there would be fueling stations along the way, it would result in humans gaining access to almost anywhere in the solar system.

The people in these craft would require only "a few days of training" before being certified to fly. If you arrive at the place and decide you don't like it as much as you thought and yearn to come home - don't worry! With the billionaire planning on sending fleets to Mars roughly every two years, there'll be another ship along shortly to bring you back to mother Earth.

As far as safety is concerned, for the first flights of the Interplanetary Spaceship on a journey to Mars, Musk offered the grim prediction that "The risk of fatality will be high."

Throughout the speech, Musk shied away from setting any concrete dates for accomplishing the above goals, estimating that it will take anywhere between forty and one hundred years to develop a self-sustaining species from the first ship's rendezvous.

What happens now?
As a space enthusiast, Musk excites me with his audacious plans to turn humans into a multiplanetary species. The fact that someone is even thinking about doing so, let alone already investing tens of millions of dollars in order to make it a reality brings me a profound sense of joy for the present, and quiet optimism for the future.

"With each passing day, the barrier separating science fiction
and science fact is constantly being eroded" 
credit: SpaceX
Scouring online forums, websites and fan pages in the hours after Musk delivered his keynote, reactions ranged from sheer delight to downright doom and gloom. If Musk's speech was a movie, it would have received mixed reviews, and here's why..

Following the catastrophic loss of two of his Falcon-9 booster's in just fifteen months(for which a smoking gun in the second accident is yet to be identified), SpaceX's reputation as a reliable company capable of delivering payloads and one day astronauts in to space has taken a hard blow.

By the beginning of 2018 Musk hopes to begin conducting missions of its Red Dragon spacecraft(the vehicle that will deliver SpaceX's first astronauts to Mars), with Mars flights set to commence before 2023.

However, with the Hawthorne company yet to deliver a single astronaut to the International Space Station in its Crew Dragon, Elon Musk's timelines for the moment must be taken with a pinch of salt.

In summary, let us recognise that space is an awfully big ocean, and getting comfortable in the shallow cosmic waters of low-Earth orbit is a must before even thinking about venturing any deeper. It is therefore essential that Musk invest as much time and money into figuring what is going wrong with the Falcon-9, before pressing on with bigger issues.

With each passing day, the barrier separating science fiction and science fact is constantly being eroded. But it is mandatory that Musk firstly learns how to fly his troublesome Falcon as close to total reliability as possible. Otherwise, none of this will ever get off the ground - let alone to Mars.

Godspeed, Elon Musk!

Thank you for reading Irish Space Blog!

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