Home / Science / Elon Musk says SpaceX’s first trip to Mars could fly in 4 years

Elon Musk says SpaceX’s first trip to Mars could fly in 4 years

SpaceX is almost ready to start building a permanent human settlement on Mars with its huge Starship rocket.

The private spaceflight company is on track to launch its first unmanned mission to Mars in less than four years, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk told the Mars Society International Convention on Friday (Oct.16).

“I think we have a chance to fight to make that second transfer window to Mars,” Musk said in a discussion with Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin. You can watch a replay of the speech here.

That window Musk refers to is a launch opportunity that comes up every 26 months for the mission to Mars. NASA, China and the UAE launched missions to Mars in July of this year. The next window opens in 2022 with Musk referencing the Mars launch opportunity in 2024.

The mission will be launched on the Red Planet in a SpaceX Starship vehicle, a reusable combo of rockets and spacecraft that is currently under development at the South Texas facility. SpaceX is also planning to use Starship for missions to the moon starting in 2022, as well as point-to-point travel around the Earth.

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Musk has long argued that humans need to establish a permanent and self-sustaining presence on Mars to ensure “the continuity of consciousness as we know it”, in the event that planet Earth is left uninhabitable by something like nuclear war or a asteroid attack.

But SpaceX has no plans to actually build a base on Mars. As a transportation company, its only goal is to ferry cargo (and humans) to and from the Red Planet, facilitating the development of someone else’s Mars base.

“SpaceX is facing the single biggest challenge, which is the transportation system. There are all kinds of other systems that will be needed,” Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin said at the convention.

“My personal hope is that we will see Starship in the stratosphere before the end of this year, and if Elon is right, reach orbit next year or the following year,” Zubrin added. “This will change people’s minds about what’s possible. And then, you know, we’ll have NASA trying to fund the remaining pieces of the puzzle or entrepreneurs coming forward to develop the remaining pieces of the puzzle.”

This SpaceX infographic shows how the company aims to use its Starship interstellar spaceship to transport humans and cargo to and from the Red Planet. (Image credit: SpaceX)

If Musk’s projections are correct – he is known for offering overly ambitious timelines – SpaceX’s first mission to Mars would be launched in the same year that NASA astronauts return to the moon under the Artemis program. SpaceX is also planning to take space tourists on a spaceship mission around the moon in 2023. NASA has also selected SpaceX as one of three commercial teams to develop lunar landers for the Artemis program.

Musk said Friday that if it weren’t for the orbital mechanics that require Mars launches every 26 months, SpaceX “would have maybe a chance to send or try to send something to Mars in three years,” Musk said, adding that Earth and Mars it won’t be in the best position. “But the window is four years away, because they are in different parts of the solar system.”

Musk unveiled plans for SpaceX’s spacecraft plans in 2016. The project aims to launch a 50-meter spacecraft atop a huge booster for deep space missions to the Moon, Mars and elsewhere. Both the spaceship and its Super Heavy upgrade will be reusable.

This year, SpaceX launched two test flights of the spacecraft prototypes, called SN5 and SN6, from its Boca Chica test site in Texas. Those flights reached an altitude of 500 feet (150 meters).

SpaceX is currently preparing another spacecraft prototype, called the SN8, for a 12-mile (20-kilometer) test flight in the near future.

Email Hanneke Weitering at hweitering@space.com or follow her on Twitter @hannekescience. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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