Space entrepreneur Elon Musk said Thursday that his company will try to develop an fully reusable orbital launch system — and he sketched out a scenario for using such a system to send settlers to Mars.
Musk, the millionaire founder of California-based SpaceX, touched on his long-term vision as well as his shorter-term strategy during a webcast speech to the National Press Club in Washington.
He told the audience that creating a fully reusable rocket system was key to making spaceflight affordable, but that the engineering complexities have frustrated previous efforts to meet the challenge.
"I wasn't sure it could be solved, for a while, but then I think just relatively recently — probably in the last 12 months or so — I've come to the conclusion that it can be solved and I think SpaceX is going to try to do it," Musk said.
"Now, we could fail — I'm not saying we are certain of success here — but we are going to try to do it. And we have a design that on paper — doing the calculations, doing the simulations — it does work," he added. "Now we need to make sure that those simulations and reality agree, because generally when they don't reality wins."
Designing the Falcon and Dragon
Musk played an animation showing how both of the stages for SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket could be designed to deliver a Dragon spacecraft to orbit, then return to the launch site and touch down vertically, under rocket power, on landing gear. Meanwhile, the Dragon could dock at the International Space Station, make its delivery, then return from orbit and make its own touchdown on a landing pad.
SpaceX is currently working to demonstrate that its big Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule can ferry supplies to the space station now that NASA has retired its space shuttle fleet. As currently designed, the Dragon and the Falcon 9's first stage are intended to be reusable after recovery from ocean splashdowns.
Much more design work and testing would be required to produce the kind of launch system shown in SpaceX's animation.
A totally reusable rocket would greatly reduce the cost of spaceflight. A conventional rocket is used once: As fuel is used up each stage falls away and burns up on descent through the atmosphere or remains in orbit as junk.
Musk said a Falcon 9 costs about $50 million to $60 million, but the cost of fuel and oxygen for a launch is only about $200,000.
"So obviously if we can reuse the rocket, say a thousand times, then that would make the capital cost of the rocket per launch only about $50,000," he said.
Musk did not detail a timeline or cost for development. "If it does work, it'll be pretty huge," he said.
Musk said the animation was about a 90 percent accurate depiction of the envisioned rocket.
SpaceX's next mission will be to launch a Dragon capsule to the space station, perhaps in January. The company also hopes to eventually qualify its capsule to carry astronauts in addition to cargo.
Musk said that "we could launch humans on our next flight, in January," if SpaceX stuck to the same safety standard that was in force for the shuttle program.
"Dragon currently doesn’t have a launch escape system, and the shuttle didn’t either," he said. "But we agree with NASA it is a wise move to have that. It will take us about two years, maybe three to have a launch escape system."
Settling on Mars
Musk's longer-term vision is to carry payloads and eventually people to Mars. He's often talked about his wish to help make humanity a "multiplanet species," and he has said the first human mission to Mars could take place within 10 to 15 years, depending on funding.
During Thursday's hourlong talk, Musk said low-cost access to space would make it possible to send a "self-sustaining human population" to the Red Planet. Such a settlement would serve as a cosmic life-insurance policy in the event of a global disaster on Earth, Musk said.
He suggested spending a quarter of a percent of gross domestic product on space development, with an eye toward eventual Mars missions. Assuming an estimated annual GDP of $14 trillion, that would amount to spending $35 billion a year. In comparison, NASA's current budget is $19 billion, and the space agency proposes spending $18 billion between now and 2017 on its recently announced Space Launch System.
Musk said advances in space technology could drive down the cost of a trip to Mars to about $500,000 per person — which he estimated would be affordable for at least one person out of a million. If Earth's population is 8 billion by the time a Mars-worthy launch system is available, that would imply that at least 8,000 people could afford to fly to Mars, Musk said.
However, Musk said all those calculations rely on the development of affordable, fully reusable rockets.
"A fully and rapidly reusable system is fully required for life to become multiplanetary, for us to establish life on Mars," Musk said. "If planes were not reusable, very few people would fly."
More about SpaceX:
- SpaceX plans suborbital 'Grasshopper' rocket
- SpaceX chief sets his sights on Mars
- Space station getting set for private spaceships
- Latest news and information about SpaceX
This report includes information from msnbc.com and The Associated Press.