A few days ago, Elon Musk tweeted photos of the successful first firing of the engine with which he plans to make the dream of interplanetary travel a reality.
Today, Elon Musk delivered the keynote address at the 2016 IAC (International Astronautical Congress) on "Making Humans an Interplanetary Species," in which he described his totally believable vision for putting 1 million people on Mars within 40 to 100 years of having the first interplanetary fleet ready for its window of departure.
Musk described how the window of opportunity opens only once every 26 months, and estimated the travel time for the mission at each launch date. An average pilgrimage requires 115 days, with the shortest voyage lasting only 80 days (start saving for the 2035 window if you want to set the speed record).
But he describes an experience designed to enlarge the part of the Venn diagram for people who want to go to Mars: zero-G game rooms, restaurants and spacious cabins. And Musk insists that anyone who really wants to go and saves towards that end will be able to afford the trip, making the Venn overlap of potential colonists equally large, and easily able to feed Musk's dream of a 7-figure population on Mars.
If you want all the technical details, watch the speech. His vision can be understood by anyone, and Musk gets a couple chuckles as well, for funding plans involving stolen underpants and a remark on his record keeping his visionary schemes to a time schedule.
Suffice it to say that Musk has already succeeded to launch and vertically land his 9-engine Falcon, and plans to launch a 27-engine Falcon Heavy in 2017. Unlike a winged lander, his ships require no landing strips and can safely stop on land or water in any atmosphere.
Job number one on Mars will be construction of solar-powered propellant production facilities. Using the Sabatier process and electrolysis to turn water mined on Mars and carbon dioxide harvested from the atmosphere into methane and oxygen suitable to launch ships from Mars back towards Earth.
This cycle of re-use serves a critical function in keeping the overall costs per colonist to manageable levels. His vision also involves launching the Mars colonization fleet from Earth orbit, after multiple trips to and from Earth to supply and fuel the ships for the journey.
It sounds exciting, and will certainly inspire a lot of young people to dream of new frontiers. But during the Q&A, Musk did leave us with a word of warning. Asked by one audience member if he intends to be the first man on Mars, Musk replied with his customary transparency, mulling the cons that offset the unspoken pros: "the probability of death is quite high, on the first mission, and I'd like to see my kids grow up."
While the risks are high, we are certain there will be many who sign up for the adventure to Mars.