On Tuesday, September 27, 2016, SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk delivered a presentation to the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico that could have a significant impact on the human future in space. Musk introduced a bold plan for an Interplanetary Transport System that could allow for human settlement of Mars to begin, possibly within a decade (though Musk cautioned that timelines are not firm).
This plan is more than a conceptual study, but is based on engineering development already carried out by SpaceX of a huge booster and spacecraft capable of carrying 100 passengers comfortably to Mars on a single trip.. The company has already begun hardware development of some components, revealing pictures of employees standing next to a giant liquid oxygen tank that would be part of the vehicle.
The presentation (PDF here) focused mostly on the means of transportation to get the settlers to the Red Planet. Musk said that while SpaceX will be making substantial investments in the project, he expects that it will take partnerships with other industrial partners and government agencies to accomplish this daring venture. Perhaps he is counting on partners to develop the infrastructure needed to sustain the settlers on their new planetary home.
SpaceX is already partnering with NASA on commercial cargo and crew to the International Space Station and on the planned unmanned Red Dragon mission to Mars. However, this project is so huge it dwarfs NASA'a own Journey to Mars program, providing unique challenges to a partnership.
This kind of undertaking is certainly high risk. There are a number of challenges, including technical, financial, and human factors to be addressed. There may be serious political challenges from those with vested interests and some with ideological motives.
One thing about Elon Musk is that when he sets his mind on an audacious goal, he has the drive to get it done (though maybe not on his originally announced timeline). Also, Musk is not alone with the vision for human expansion into space. Jeff Bezos, whose Blue Origin space company recently announced plans for a large new rocket (and a hint of a larger one to come) openly shares his vision "I want millions of people living and working in space. I want us to be a spacefaring civilization." And other visionary entrepreneurs are pursuing ventures in developing space habitats, mining the Moon and asteroids, space tourism, etc.
These developments are leading to the expansion of humanity beyond Earth with profound implications for economic growth, national and international security, and cultural development. We live at a time when our civilization is at great peril, and at the same time there is much promise for the future.
Video illustration of SpaceX's Interplanetary Transport System carrying people to Mars
Video of SpaceX CEO Elon Musk presenting the plan at IAC2016