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Mars Space The Almighty Buck Transportation Science

Elon Musk: Future Round-Trip To Mars Could Cost Under $500,000 238

An anonymous reader writes with this quote from the BBC: "Rocket entrepreneur Elon Musk believes he can get the cost of a round trip to Mars down to about half a million dollars. The SpaceX CEO says he has finally worked out how to do it, and told the BBC he would reveal further details later this year or early in 2013. ... 'My vision is for a fully reusable rocket transport system between Earth and Mars that is able to re-fuel on Mars — this is very important — so you don't have to carry the return fuel when you go there,' he said. 'The whole system [must be] reusable — nothing is thrown away. That's very important because then you're just down to the cost of the propellant.' ... He conceded the figure was unlikely to be the opening price — rather, the cost of a ticket on a mature system that had been operating for about a decade. Nonetheless, Musk thought such an offering could be introduced in 10 years at best, and 15 at worst."
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Elon Musk: Future Round-Trip To Mars Could Cost Under $500,000

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  • by wild_quinine ( 998562 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:39PM (#39418603) Homepage
    Crikey. He could get that on kickstarter in about half an hour.
  • Did he launch them in falcon 9 last time?
    I mean spaceX is awesome, but he really should have more realistic look on things.
    Please first make a human rated space capsule, and actually start launching stuff from its long manifest,
    then we will talk mars

    • by jayrtfm ( 148260 )

      He DID make a human rated capsule, the wheel of cheese survived its Dragon flight just fine. A good argument could be made that the Shuttle was NOT human rated.

      • by tragedy ( 27079 )

        As the Rogers Commission report showed, NASA management held that the shuttle would catastrophically fail about 1 out of every 100,000 flights, which is a ridiculous figure. The engineers more realistically put it between 1 out of every 100 flights and 1 out of every 50. Reality put it at about 1 out of every 68 flights. I'm not sure what the human-rating requirements were before the two shuttle disasters, but the current standards are 1 catastrophe in every 500 ascents and 1 in every 500 descents, so the

    • I guess a whole lot is going to be riding on this next Falcon 9 launch. If it blows up on the launch pad I would think you might be right. Somehow I doubt that will happen, but who knows?

      The problem with your reasoning is that Elon Musk is launching stuff into space and building real spacecraft, hiring real astronauts and getting stuff done. He also has that "crew-rated space capsule" and has even done the math to get it to Mars. In terms of the "long manifest", they are paying deposits to get onto that list, so there must be some actual people with money who are willing to spend several million dollars risking that something is going to happen.

      I agree that SpaceX needs to go through the manifest, but Elon Musk does seem like he is able to deliver on his promises.

    • 10 years ago, Musk said that he wanted to make multiple rockets that were cheap to launch. His point was that launch was not about capability, but about economics. He now has the cheapest launch system with the F9 and shortly, the worlds currently largest rocket, the Falcon Heavy. Both of these will beat any launch system unless nations like China and Russia simply subsidize even further, and dump on the global market. As such, more than 2/3 of his flights are Commercial, with many more expected once the F
  • by petes_PoV ( 912422 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:40PM (#39418615)
    The cost of the trip might only be half a mil, but the board and lodging on Mars would run to $1000's per night (minimum stay 8 months until the planetary alignment is right for the return trip). Got to make the money back somehow and it's not like there would be many alternative places to stay
    • Re:Captive market (Score:5, Interesting)

      by vlm ( 69642 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @05:45PM (#39419629)

      minimum stay 8 months until the planetary alignment is right for the return trip

      Technically you can just swing by on a minimum energy Hohmann ellipse and come right back. If you want to stay awhile its either gonna cost more fuel or time until you can set up another minimum fuel ellipse to come back.

      If you're willing to burn a tiny tiny little extra fuel, you pass beyond mars orbit ... so you jump a lander craft off on the way out, and rejoin on the way back in. Basically you plan a Hohmann pretending that Mars is in a slightly bigger orbit. Its actually a hell of a lot more complicated than this.

      You can model stuff like this with the "orbiter" orbital mechanics simulator from the early 00s (and still going), or you can run the numbers, or just go intuitively.

      From memory fooling around with this, the increased fuel in the main machine, and increased fuel in the lander craft, means you are not going to hang around very long... but from memory a couple days was not too unrealistic in terms of increased delta-v?

    • by dkf ( 304284 )

      (minimum stay 8 months until the planetary alignment is right for the return trip)

      That depends on whether you're committed to using an interplanetary transfer without thrust for the large majority of the time. If you can apply thrust the whole way, you have many more options open. Admittedly that means you're not going to be using conventional rockets, but that's pretty obvious in any case. The other advantage of a transfer under power is that it greatly shortens the time that people are at great risk from radiation and solar events like flares.

      We don't do those sorts of transfers at the

  • Of course (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Brett Buck ( 811747 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:41PM (#39418633)

    Everything seems plausible, if you don't know what you are doing.

    • by Shoten ( 260439 )

      No, I think he's onto something. The trick is that once you get partway there, you'll be dead from some random solar flare's radiation. So, you won't need NEARLY as many amenities...and since you'll miss your flight back, that saves costs too! I can see the marketing now...

      "Our customers love Mars so much, not a single one has decided to come back!"

    • Re:Of course (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Kittenman ( 971447 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @05:05PM (#39419025)

      Everything seems plausible, if you don't know what you are doing.

      I've known some project managers who work along that principle.

  • with space stations at the top of both elevators, I suppose the trip could be made easier. Much less fuel would be required, since you do not have to break earth's atmosphere, or much of earth's gavity. Landing on Mars would be a non-issue, since you would just have to dock the space station at the end of the Mars space elevator.

    Not sure about that time frame.

    Just a random thought, I'm not sure if that would actually work.

    • Been there, done that. []

    • by mosb1000 ( 710161 ) <> on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @05:15PM (#39419173)

      Incidentally, fuel accounts for about 1% of the $50 million launch cost of a Falcon 9. That's what Elon Musk is trying to say. If you can get to a point where reassembling and reusing the launch vehicle costs as much as it's fuel, you can bring the cost of space flight down by two orders of magnitude.

      • by vlm ( 69642 )

        And as the shuttle shows, reusable hardware is the most expensive imaginable hardware. Much cheaper to design for recycling than reusing.

        • No, the shuttle shows us that government procured hardware is the most expensive imaginable. After all, when assembling components for the shuttle, the order of business seemed to be 1. Find congressional district where reusable components could be built 2. build them there 3. figure out how to get the stuff where it actually needed to be in the first place. 4. Jobs! I mean Re-election! Er.....Profit!

          Musk is almost certainly talking out of his ass. I'll plunk down 500 grand to go to mars right after my Phantom game console shows up. That being said, of all the people trying to make space flight more of a private endevour that it has been in the past, Musk has his name on the very short list of people in the "put up" rather than "shut up" category. He's putting real shit into real orbit, not not dragging tourists up for glorified X-15 flights (no slight to the Virgin / Scaled composites gang, but they're not doing heavy lift at the moment, but what they're doing is Steerman bi-plane rides on a much more awesome scale.)

        • by mosb1000 ( 710161 ) <> on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @06:04PM (#39419921)

          reusable hardware is the most expensive imaginable hardware

          People seem to be saying this because the Space Shuttle was fantastically expensive. The problem with that is that where were a lot of poor decisions that went into the shuttle (the ceramic heat shield, and the solid boosters) that we don't have to repeat in every new reusable launch system. Even in the '90s with Venture Star NASA was trying to move away from those technologies because they knew they were expensive and not beneficial.

          There's nothing wrong with looking at your failures, seeing where they went wrong, learning from them, and trying again. The result is by no means a foregone conclusion. Can you imagine if the Wright Brothers had said "people have been trying to build airplanes for a hundred years and no one's succeeded so we may as well not even try." It's absurd to think we should give up on reusable space craft simply because the Space Shuttle didn't save money. Especially since the things that made it too expensive are so obvious and fixable.

    • by Teancum ( 67324 )

      Space elevators are stuff of dreams and the distant future... if they will ever be built. It is an interesting idea, but I'm still not convinced that the technology ever could be built to make them work... Carbon nanotubes and other claims about materials that might be able to withstand the tensile strength needed to get the job done withstanding. It certainly is something that needs the kind of technological progress we've seen over the past 200 years to continue on for another 200+ years.

      Also, a Martian

  • Hey powering a trip to Mars is easy!
    All you need is methane derived by the inconceivable amounty of bullsh*! produced by Elon Musk.

    10-15 years... Really!?

    • I've determined 10-15 years to be the equivalent of "20 minutes" when asked by your kids if you are there yet.

  • My first reaction to this was WTF, but I think I know the basic idea for his plan: pack as many people into a tin can as possible and send them flying. Couple that with frequent trips and the price drops even further. This is also probably going to involve asteroid/moon mining as well as fuel plants on Mars.

    I am still very skeptical that he could get the cost down to 500k/person even with all of those improvements, but a 5m/person cost doesn't seem impossible to achieve with economies of scale.

    • Re:Unbelievable (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Brett Buck ( 811747 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:49PM (#39418797)

      My first reaction to this was WTF, but I think I know the basic idea for his plan: pack as many people into a tin can as possible and send them flying.

          Aside from the little detail of also sending enough supplies to sustain them on the trip and once they get there, and on any presumed return flight, yes.

  • by Lunaritian ( 2018246 ) * on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:46PM (#39418735)

    The article doesn't say how much it would cost to build a space ship like that, so probably several billions at least. Probably won't happen.

    But if I can really get a ticket to Mars for half a million, I'll get one no matter what it takes.

  • Didn't really want to 'retire' any how.
  • by nitehawk214 ( 222219 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:50PM (#39418803)

    How about we get to LEO for under a million first.

    • Re:Mars? (Score:5, Informative)

      by Chris Burke ( 6130 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @05:00PM (#39418955) Homepage

      LEO is nearly halfway to Mars surface in terms of delta-v [].

      So yeah, SpaceX is directly addressing the most important component of making Mars missions economically feasible.

      If we can make access LEO a relatively cheap commodity, and make it so we don't have to lift every single thing that we're going to take to Mars all at once, and have a way to have robotic manufacture of fuel on Mars for the trip back, then I can totally see Musk's statement playing out.

      It does all hinge on that first huge step though. Fortunately SpaceX is hardly neglecting that part, and progress is promising.

  • Is there any fuel on mars he can use? If not, how is it gonna get there? By rocket? Wouldn't it make more sense to just put enough in it for a round trip instead of wasting fuel to get a supply on mars? If there is fuel on mars, will he take some of it back to earth?
    • Re:Fuel? (Score:5, Informative)

      by joh ( 27088 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @05:08PM (#39419057)

      There is no fuel to be found, but you can make fuel from the atmosphere (CO2) and water (and lots of power from solar cells or fission). This has been proposed for decades now. For everything more than a one-off foot print mission it's certainly worth the effort.

      Elon Musk may be a bit crazy, but he's not an idiot. In fact SpaceX has done lots of things meanwhile that were deemed plain impossible with the kind of money they had in hand. The crucial point will be if SpaceX will be a profitable company in the next years. If they manage to make sane profits I'm pretty well sure that Musk will put every penny into going to Mars. He's *that* crazy, really.

      • Re:Fuel? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Teancum ( 67324 ) <[ten.orezten] [ta] [gninroh_trebor]> on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @05:53PM (#39419749) Homepage Journal

        Elon Musk did say that he wanted to retire by living on Mars, and wants to make sure that he isn't alone there either. Given his age and what he has accomplished so far, he might just make it too.

        It sure is a whole lot more sane than spending $30 billion dollars for a rocket that is half as powerful as the Saturn V and costs twice as much per pound as the Space Shuttle designed by the incredibly talented engineering firm known as the United States Senate. Which future do you really want to live in?

        • by sconeu ( 64226 )

          It sure is a whole lot more sane than spending $30 billion dollars for a rocket that is half as powerful as the Saturn V

          Ares V was projected to be half-AGAIN as powerful as a Saturn V.

          • by khallow ( 566160 )

            Ares V was projected to be half-AGAIN as powerful as a Saturn V.

            Ares V would have been a lot more than half as powerful, but most of that extra power would be lost with the inefficient solid rocket motors. The primary reason that Constellation failed (which incidentally will be a good part of the reason the SLS will fail) was the dependence on ATK's solid rocket motors.

            Besides you and the original poster are really talking about payload to LEO, not power.

            And it's worth noting here that the original poster is talking about SLS not Ares V which has a minimum legisla

    • Supply ships can travel only in space and needn't be fast, and don't need to be human-rated either. Therefore they can use more efficient designs than rockets.

      Also, since Mars is very Earth-like, it seems very likely that there is fuel there.

  • by jandrese ( 485 ) <> on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @04:59PM (#39418925) Homepage Journal
    So basically he's quoting the fuel costs for just the weight of the person and minimal life support for a one-way trip to Mars assuming a more efficient engine than we have today? That's nice, but it doesn't really capture the full extent of the costs for this trip.
    • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @08:49PM (#39421681) Homepage

      Actually he said round trip but only after being done in volume and with R&D paid down, he did say towards the end that fuel costs were only $10-20/pound but already the Falcon Heavy would break the $1000/pound barrier - I assume this is to LEO. The capacity is only 40% of that to GTO which is almost the same as Mars transfer orbit, so more like $2500/pound but it still puts a 150 pound person on his way to Mars for $375k. The delta-v needed from Mars to Earth is lower, about as LEO so $150k for a $525k total. Of course you'll still need a lander and life support but I assume at the $500k price point Musk expects there is among other things a working Mars colony that can be expanded using local resources.

      Remember that at this price point we could put 36,000 people a year on Mars if we dedicated NASA's budget to it, I'm thinking of a society that makes their own fuel, builds their own domes, produces their own solar panels and expands their own oxygen, food and water supply. The trip costs would be just the trip costs, I don't know how low you could get the lodging cost but surely it can't be that bad in volume. If you assume you start with a fully stockpiled ship on both ends and only think capsule+people+life support for the trip then it doesn't seem that unfeasible. Of course right now we have none of that but it'd be stupid for every mission to bring their own base and supplies forever.

      If you could start to approach those rates you could possibly even make a living going to Mars, if you go for a 10 year trip and is a $100k/year software developer - which you can be from a cubicle on Mars - you can probably pay your own trip and boarding. Okay, the millionaire playboys will be first but if they can fund the R&D, get the volume up, cost down, fund the initial base then maybe you can get a snowball effect where lower costs lead to more people lead to lower costs. It won't solve earth's population problems but at $500k/person then colonizing Mars starts to look realistic. Once you're past a few thousand individuals they can procreate on their own too, though I suppose this is at odds with sending software developers ;).

  • Sounds a bit like... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by s0litaire ( 1205168 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @05:00PM (#39418939)

    ... "Buzz" Aldrin's "Mars" Cycler []

    Send up a number of transport vehicles that run in an orbit between Mars and earth. It's not fast since it's using "gravity assist" trajectories (i.e. no fuel) all you need is the fuel for a shuttle to transfer the passengers to either the planet surface (or orbiting station).

    Have a few of these transports in operation then you can have transfers every 4/12 weeks with the travel time of between 80 and 200 days depending on the orbital positions.

    • by pavon ( 30274 )

      But to hitch a ride on the Mars cycler you would need to match it's velocity with it at some point on it's orbit. But at that point you have already obtained the correct trajectory to get to Mars anyway, so why do you need the cycler?

      • by hob42 ( 41735 )

        I haven't read any of the details of the idea, but I would guess it would be because you'd have a larger ship, more support equipment, etc., in the cycler and a small, limited capsule to go up and down. Therefore, you'd be using less propellant, since you're accelerating less mass back and forth.

      • by s0litaire ( 1205168 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @05:51PM (#39419723)

        If i remember correctly Aldrin's original idea was to use the "main tank" from the Space shuttles as the transport vehicles.

        The tank was just jettisoned and left to burn up on re-entry, The extra "cost" to take it into orbit would have been negligible.

        Then all they would need to do is vent any residual fuel in the tank to the vacuum of space, install a couple of air locks and some viewing ports and you have a habitable pressure vessel.

        All that's left to fit is life support and a few home comforts if it's for human transport or a load of cargo straps... ^_^

        Then load it up and give it a nudge in the correct direction...

  • How does he plan on getting the fuel TO Mars in the first place?
    • Re:Fuel (Score:4, Informative)

      by joh ( 27088 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @05:12PM (#39419137)

      How does he plan on getting the fuel TO Mars in the first place?

      He doesn't want to get it TO Mars, he wants to get it FROM Mars. There's enough CO2 and water there to produce your own fuel and oxidizer from local resources. Has been proposed (and demonstrated engineering-wise) since decades. This is not easy or cheap, but much easier and cheaper than to transport it there from Earth.

  • by bkmoore ( 1910118 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @05:11PM (#39419117)
    That's just the internet teaser price. Add in checked luggage, oxygen, in-flight meals, in-flight entertainment (plastic head phones), airport taxes, taxi fare, hotel at the destination, and a quarter every time you use the lavatory, and you'll regret ever taking the cheap no-thrills space line. Stick with the established major carriers.
  • "My vision is for a fully reusable rocket transport system" ... NASA had that vision with the Space Shuttle, but even excluding all R&D and capital purchases, just the incremental costs per launch were orders of magnitude higher than $500k per seat. And that's just to LEO! OK, that's "halfway to anywhere", but maintenance is a bitch, the staff required is huge, on and on... NASA isn't a role model for efficiency, but I seriously doubt that the commercial sector is going to be able to outdevelop them

    • Re:Space Shuttle (Score:5, Informative)

      by joh ( 27088 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @05:30PM (#39419389)

      "My vision is for a fully reusable rocket transport system" ... NASA had that vision with the Space Shuttle, but even excluding all R&D and capital purchases, just the incremental costs per launch were orders of magnitude higher than $500k per seat. And that's just to LEO! OK, that's "halfway to anywhere", but maintenance is a bitch, the staff required is huge, on and on... NASA isn't a role model for efficiency, but I seriously doubt that the commercial sector is going to be able to outdevelop them in just 10-15 years.

      I thought the same a few years ago, but SpaceX just did everything right then. Hey, they developed a launcher (two actually), launchpads and a spacecraft, built *and* launched them for about the same amount of money as NASA or ESA need to build a single launchpad. ESA's ATV alone (without the launcher and everything else) did cost *more* than what SpaceX did spend altogether until now and ATV is just a one-way orbital transporter with no reentry capability.

      Outdeveloping NASA and the other government-fed entities seems very much possible.

      • I just think 10-15 years to get completely ahead when they're currently where NASA was in the mid-'60s (initial manned suborbital and LEO exploration) is a bit optimistic.

        Longer term I agree. Hands down, the commercial side with greatly outpace NASA and ESA.

        • Re:Space Shuttle (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Teancum ( 67324 ) <[ten.orezten] [ta] [gninroh_trebor]> on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @06:56PM (#39420505) Homepage Journal

          NASA hasn't gone too much beyond where they were in the mid 1960's and in some ways are going backward. The SLS isn't anything more than a scaled down version of the Saturn V made with used parts from earlier spacecraft, so if SpaceX is at the same level that NASA was in the mid 1960's... in 10-15 years they will be far ahead of anything NASA is doing at the moment. It is sad to say, but Skylab pretty much was the pinnacle of the manned spaceflight program and it has been going downhill since. They've improved some procedures, but NASA hasn't really done anything genuinely inspiring with the manned spaceflight program other than repair the Hubble telescope. The Shuttle flights looked cool.... but really?

          It terms of daring to go where nobody has gone before, NASA just isn't where it is at any more. Heck, they can't even duplicate Alan Shepard's first flight, even though Richard Branson is trying to make that happen.

    • by hob42 ( 41735 )

      They already have. Dragon and Orion both started development in 2005. Dragon has already made one unmanned test flight and next month will fly an unmanned capsule to the ISS. Orion is planned to launch an unmanned test flight in two years. Dragon will carry 7 people and is planned to make the first crewed flight in 2016. Orion was originally supposed to support a 7 man crew, and then 4-6, and now it is 2-4, and the first flight will be 2020 or later. What part of out-developing and out-performing NASA are t

  • by douthat ( 568842 ) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 @05:17PM (#39419203)

    His plan sounds a lot like Robert Zubrin's Mars Direct plan detailed in The Case for Mars []

  • Even more so when it's outside the realm of fantasy. But ignoring the probability of his quoted price. Ignoring the difference between putting humans on Mars vs putting robots on Mars. Ignoring the story here and taking a step back:

    What do we do once we get there?

    There's science to do. I get that. I'm a fan of science. But what exactly? And why do we want to go do it ourselves?
    I've seen this boil down to two reasons: 1) Political showmanship. Getting people interested in science. All that fluff whi
  • If there is ice on Mars, then that means there is a source of Hydrogen (fuel) and Oxygen (oxidizer). []

  • Well duh!

    I mean, obviously we can all see the logic in this as we have so much practice on a daily basis comparing the relative cost/value of cars based purely on gas money! Hell I think we'd all hard-pressed to find even a fraction of the transportationally-inclined population that gauged costs of automotive travel based on silly things like initial investment capital or maintenance fees!

    It's only a logical leap (nay, barely a hop!) to assume that stellar travel will be just as reliable as our maintenance

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