Elon Musk’s Plan to Colonize Mars

In an announcement to the International Astronautical Congress on Tuesday, Elon Musk unveiled his Interplanetary Transport System (ITS). His goal: allow humans to colonize a city on Mars within the next 50 to 100 years.

Speaking to an energetic crowd in Guadalajara, Mexico, Musk explained that the alternative to staying on Earth, which is at risk of a “doomsday event,” is to “become a spacefaring civilization and a multi-planet species.” As he told Aeon magazine in 2014, “I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen.” Colonizing Mars, he believes, is one of our best options.

In his speech, Musk discussed the details of his transport system. The ITS, developed by SpaceX, would use the most powerful rocket ever built, and at 400 feet tall, it would also be the largest spaceflight system ever created. The spaceship would fit 100-200 people and would feature movie theaters, lecture halls, restaurants, and other fun activities to make the approximately three-month journey enjoyable. “You’ll have a great time,” said Musk.

Musk explained four key issues that must be addressed to make colonization of Mars possible: the rockets need to be fully reusable, they need to be able to refuel in orbit, there must be a way to harness energy on Mars, and we must figure out more efficient ways of traveling. If SpaceX succeeds in meeting these requirements, the rockets could travel to Mars and return to Earth to pick up more colonists for the journey. Musk explained that the same rockets could be used up to a dozen times, bringing more and more people to colonize the Red Planet.

Despite his enthusiasm for the ITS, Musk was careful to acknowledge that there are still many difficulties and obstacles in reaching this goal. Currently, getting to Mars would require an investment of about $10 billion, which is not affordable for most people today. However, Musk thinks that the reusable rocket technology could significantly decrease this cost. “If we can get the cost of moving to Mars to the cost of a median house price in the U.S., which is around $200,000, then I think the probability of establishing a self-sustaining civilization is very high,” Musk noted.

But this viability requires significant investment from both the government and the private sector. Musk explained, “I know there’s a lot of people in the private sector who are interested in helping fund a base on Mars and then perhaps there will be interest on the government sector side to also do that. Ultimately, this is going to be a huge public-private partnership.” This speech, and the attention it has garnered, could help make such investment and cooperation possible.

Many questions remain about how to sustain human life on Mars and whether or not SpaceX can make this technology viable, as even Musk admits. He explained, “This is a huge amount of risk, will cost a lot, and there’s a good chance we don’t succeed. But we’re going to try and do our best. […] What I really want to do here is to make Mars seem possible — make it seem as though it’s something that we could do in our lifetimes, and that you can go.”

Musk’s full speech can be found here.