Business

Elon Musk's new vision: Anywhere on Earth in under one hour

Bloomberg, Reuters

Entrepreneur Elon Musk, who envisions a human colony on Mars, said Friday he is also planning to create a SpaceX rocket ship capable of traveling anywhere on Earth in under an hour. If the concept becomes reality, a journey from Tokyo to New York could be completed in about 30 minutes.

Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. has already disrupted the aerospace industry with reusable launches.

“If we are going to places like Mars, why not Earth?” Musk said Friday at the 68th International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia. A big screen behind him showed people getting on a high-speed ferry in New York, then boarding the rocket, code-named “BFR.” The spaceship then headed for Shanghai.

Musk said that SpaceX, which has launched 13 rockets so far this year, aims to complete 30 missions for customers next year. SpaceX has many commercial satellite operators as customers, and the revenue from those contracts will help fund the development of BFR, which will also help set up a base on the moon.

SpaceX plans its first trip to the red planet in 2022, carrying only cargo, to be followed by a manned mission in 2024, Musk said.

NASA’s first human mission to Mars is expected about a decade later.

Musk had previously planned to use a suite of space vehicles to support the colonization of Mars, but he said SpaceX is now focused on a single, slimmer and shorter rocket instead: “We want to have one system. If we can do that, then all the resources … can be applied to this system. I feel fairly confident that we can complete the ship and be ready for a launch in about five years.”

The rocket would be partially reusable and capable of flying directly from Earth to Mars, Musk said. The slimmer version could still carry 100 passengers and could also be used for fast transportation on Earth.Lockheed Martin Corp. announced separate plans for a manned Mars journey on Friday, unveiling concept drawings of a “base camp” space station orbiting Mars and landing craft that would carry four astronauts to the planet’s surface.

“We know its cold, it’s pretty inhospitable, so we start with the robots and then we go down with these landers,” Rob Chambers, Lockheed’s director of human space flight strategy, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. in an interview.

Chambers gave no date, but the planned mission would be a joint expedition with NASA during the 2030s.

Musk, 46, has a net worth of more than $20 billion and has said he would use his personal assets to help fund his vision.

Musk, who is also CEO of electric-car maker Tesla Inc., founded SpaceX in 2002 with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets. The closely held space exploration company flies its Falcon 9 rocket for customers that include NASA, commercial satellite operators and the U.S. military. The company also has plans to launch its own satellite network.

The cost of a Falcon 9 launch is roughly $62 million, with modest discounts available for multilaunch purchases. SpaceX’s rockets are designed for reuse, with rocket reusability now seen as key to making space travel affordable. SpaceX celebrated its first launch using a previously flown booster in March.

On top of the 13 launches in 2017, SpaceX has several more missions on its manifest for the remainder of the year. The company expects to demonstrate later this year the first test flight of Falcon Heavy, a far more powerful rocket capable of heavy payloads and sending space tourists around the moon.

Mars exploration got an enormous boost in August 2012 when NASA’s Curiosity Rover landed on the red planet. The robotic vehicle continues to transmit breathtaking photographs of the landscape.

Still, human colonization of Mars won’t be easy. Getting there will take several months, with unknown risks to the human body and psyche. Even if space explorers survive the journey and landing, they would need to get to work immediately to create a habitable atmosphere and produce the fuel needed to propel the rocket ship homeward.

Musk has a busy agenda while in Australia. Later Friday, he attended a Tesla Energy event at a wind farm. Tesla is selling its batteries to utilities eager to find ways to integrate renewables like solar and wind with their electric grids.