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SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk to make life multi-planetary. "You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great and that's what being a space-faring civilization is all about. It's about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can't think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars," he says. The rocket company, has been developing the world's most advanced orbital-class rockets over the past decade. The Falcon 9 rocket is capable of returning from space by performing a controlled landing(s) on autonomous drone ships at sea. Typically other aerospace companies use rockets one time then discard of it. SpaceX has successfully landed/recovered 50 orbital-class rockets.
SpaceX has conducted 20 cargo missions to the International Space Station aboard its Dragon spacecraft, which was retired this year after nearly a decade in operation. The craft is replaced with an upgraded version known as Crew Dragon, that will soon launch NASA astronauts to the space station for the first time in May this year. SpaceX will return human spaceflight capabilities to the United States, no manned flights to space have been launched from American soil since 2011. All of this experience will pave the way towards conducting missions to Mars.
SpaceX is currently developing a new spaceship-rocket duo, known as Starship. It will be capable of conducting long-duration voyages, carrying tons of cargo and 100 passengers through deep space. The first prototypes of the Starship vehicle are under construction at SpaceX's South Texas facility located in Boca Chica Beach. Engineers plan to conduct the first high-altitude test flights this year, and an orbital attempt right after.
SpaceX aims to build a sustainable colony on the Red Planet by the year 2050. It has not published a specific timeline for when its first missions to Mars will be, but Musk has previously stated that the first Martian base could be up and running by 2028.
In order to build a permanent settlement and maintain a constant human presence, he estimates that a fleet of 1,000 Starships, would be needed to transport 100 megatons of crucial cargo to the Martian surface. Musk explained to reporters: "...In order to make something self-sustaining, you can’t be missing anything. You must have all the ingredients. It can’t be like, well this thing is self-sustaining except for this one little thing that we don’t have. It can’t be. That’d be like saying, ‘Well ... we had everything except vitamin C.’ Okay, great. Now you’re going to get scurvy and die—and painfully, by the way. It’s going to suck. You’re going to die slowly and painfully for lack of vitamin C. So we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the vitamin C there on Mars."
"Then it’s like, Okay, rough order of magnitude, what kind of tonnage do you need to make it self-sustaining? It’s probably not less than a million tons," he added.
"Megatons per year to orbit are needed for life to become multi-planetary."
SpaceX's first missions to Mars will consist of landing a minimum of two Starships filled with cargo before sending any humans there. This is crucial, in order to provide the necessary life-support equipment, such as oxygen tanks, power generators, food, and building material infrastructure that the first astronauts will need to survive on Mars' harsh environment. Cargo will also include landing pads and equipment needed to set up Starship refueling stations. The first Martian settlers will have the most challenging tasks, like building a propellant plant to pave the way towards transforming humans into a multi-planet species. By 2050, Musk envisions one million humans living on the Red Planet's surface.
In May 2019, Paul Wooster, the principal Mars development engineer at SpaceX, said during a speech at the Humans to Mars Summit, "SpaceX very much is a transportation company." He shared that SpaceX plans to build all the infrastructure necessary to support the company's first set of Starship flights to and from Mars. The first uncrewed Mars missions could send rovers and machines to confirm the presence of vital natural resources like water. Wooster explained that SpaceX wants to use subsurface water-ice and carbon dioxide from the planet's atmosphere to refuel Starships' Raptor engines on Mars, to enable return to Earth. Wooster said:
"SpaceX's intent, Elon's intent in founding SpaceX was to enable humanity to become a multi-planet species, allowing us to establish cities on Mars.[...] The vehicle [Starship] itself is very much in development now."
Once Starship is operating, SpaceX hopes to form partnerships with NASA, and also with many companies who have the same ambition of enabling life on Mars. "We're quite happy to help out NASA in their overall plans for going to the moon and Mars," Wooster said.
SpaceX aims to start launching humans to the Red Planet in the mid-2020's. That time frame is likely due to the fact that Mars and Earth align closer to each other in 2024 and 2026. The planetary alignments occur approximately every 2 years, it enables a faster arrival which offers higher potential for mission success. Before performing missions to Mars, by 2023 SpaceX is scheduled to launch the first space tourist, Yusaku Maezawa (an entrepreneur who is funding Starship's development), on a circumlunar voyage around the moon.