Dec 5, 2020

Elon Musk Swears He'll Send Humans to Mars by 2026. That Seems Impossible

Elon Musk says he believes he'll send people to Mars by 2026, or even 2024.This timeline has Musk taking off for Mars when NASA is just reaching the moon again. (Maybe.)

We can't ignore the countless unanswered questions about Mars travel and habitation.

At an awards ceremony this week, Elon Musk said he believes he can start sending humans to Mars with SpaceX by 2026 at the latest, or 2024 “if we get lucky.”

Was Musk talking up his timeline to a group that just awarded him for innovation (the SpaceX founder won this year's Axel Springer Award), or does he actually believe this? It's hard to say. But the timeline is, to put it mildly, unlikely.

SpaceX has partnered with NASA on several projects, including making a customized lunar shuttle to travel between the moon’s orbit and surface for the Artemis series of missions. NASA’s Artemis program wants to put people on the moon by 2024, and even that mission’s plans are called “an aggressive timeline” by NASA administrators.

NASA says the moon goal is critical to the next phase of traveling to Mars, but the agency hasn’t set any timeline for that phase. The 2024 goal was imposed from outside by Vice President Mike Pence (it was originally 2028).

In the meantime, the rocket Musk is relying on to get to Mars as soon as 2024 is about to complete a big test. Later this week, SpaceX is set to launch SN8, its latest Starship prototype, to a target altitude of 9 miles (15 kilometers)—easily the highest a Starship has ever flown. SN8 has three engines, and that's still 27 fewer than the 30 engines that will power the Starship that Musk ultimately plans to send to Mars.

Even with a capable spacecraft in hand, a lot of the problems with a Mars journey haven't even come close to being solved. The trip to Mars takes six months on Musk’s planned timeline, meaning anyone inside the ship will be exposed to cosmic radiation for almost that entire time.

Blocking—or even reducing—that radiation would mean adding weight to an already unproven craft on an untried human journey. Volunteers have spent that much time in simulated flight conditions, but no real people have actually made the real and dangerous journey.

So let’s say humans make the six-month trip with all the supplies they need, touch down on Mars, then immediately return to Earth. The ship will either need to have the full round trip worth of supplies or be able to refuel and restock using some kind of technology to recycle or harvest resources from what Mars has available.

This is easy in the world of science fiction, where creators have posited “matter recyclers” that make extremely clean, reusable atoms. In the real world, however, we can barely recycle plastic with efficiency.

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