“Musk: A self-sustaining civilization on Mars in 40 to 100 years” by Benny Evangelista (sfgate.com)


Billionaire Elon Musk on Tuesday detailed his ambitious vision to colonize Mars: launching unmanned spacecraft to the Red Planet within the next 10 years as a first step toward establishing a self-sustaining city of 1 million people.

In a 95-minute presentation at an astronautical conference, the founder of electric car maker Tesla and private commercial space company SpaceX outlined his vision for an Interplanetary Transport System that he called the 21st century equivalent of building the transcontinental railroad to California.

And although he admitted he was not good at sticking to schedules, Musk said he hopes that SpaceX will start flying to Mars in late 2022 or early 2023.

“Once the transportation system is built, then there’s tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars to build the foundation of a new planet,” he told an enthusiastic audience at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.

Although SpaceX estimates that passengers will eventually be able to buy a ticket to move to Mars for about $100,000, Musk did not say how much it would cost to develop his Martian transportation system, only that it will require a “huge, public-private partnership.”

But Musk, speaking less than four weeks after a SpaceX rocket carrying a Facebook-backed communications satellite blew up at Cape Canaveral, said his sole purpose for accumulating wealth on Earth is to “make the biggest contribution I can to making life multiplanetary.”

“Right now, we’re trying to make as much progress as we can with the resources we have available,” he said. “It’s not just a dream, it’s something that can be made real, and I think the support will snowball over time.”

Whether Musk can accomplish his lofty plan remains to be seen, especially considering that it cost NASA about $3 billion to land one unmanned probe on Mars, said Dick Rocket, CEO of NewSpace Global, a Cape Canaveral space industry analytics firm.

But Rocket said Musk’s SpaceX is building a track record of success, even with this month’s explosion. Musk also was able to convince skeptical investors that a sporty electric car could sell.

“You could argue that everything that is disruptive in modern civilization is first considered insane,” said Rocket, who was in the audience. “It’s up to the entrepreneurs and the decision-makers in the public sector to make it sane.”

Musk showed the crowd a four-minute animated video, also posted on YouTube, of a future space flight to Mars. The video starts with some of the 100 passengers crossing a skybridge into a spacecraft at Cape Canaveral’s Apollo 11 launch pad.

After the carbon-fiber spacecraft lifts off and achieves Earth orbit, it separates from the booster rocket, which returns to Earth. The booster lands back at the launch pad, takes on fuel and returns to the orbiting spacecraft. That process might repeat two or three times before delivering enough fuel for the spacecraft to complete its journey to Mars, where it could refuel from previously established fueling stations.

The video ends with the silhouettes of four astronauts as the spacecraft door opens to reveal the Martian surface.

“This is what we plan to make it look like,” Musk said.

Once the first outposts are established, SpaceX could send ships every two years, when the orbits of the two planets bring them close. With ships that could eventually hold 200 passengers, and maybe 10,000 trips, it could take 40 to 100 years to have a “self-sustaining civilization on Mars,” Musk said.

Looking further out, Musk said a network of interplanetary fueling stations, dispensing a fuel based on methane gas, could expand to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. “You can go anywhere in the solar system by planet hopping or moon hopping,” he said.

Benny Evangelista is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: bevangelista@sfchronicle.comTwitter: @ChronicleBenny

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