Regardless of any offhand comments President Trump may have made suggesting his administration wants NASA to fast-track a manned mission to Mars — “We want to try and do that during my first term or, at worst, during my second term,” he said during a conversation with astronauts last month — technological and fiscal realities suggest that NASA won’t be fielding such a mission any time in the foreseeable future.
But if SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has his way, SpaceX could conceivably launch a robotic mission to Mars in 2020 followed by a crewed mission as soon as 2024, before a theoretical second Trump term expires. And that is much sooner than NASA’s goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s.
While experts agree that such an ambitious mission in such a short timeframe is unlikely, Musk and SpaceX have defied consensus before. Given the somewhat unlikely rapport that’s developed between the Tesla and SpaceX founder and President Trump — Musk made two trips to Trump Tower preinauguration, where both Mars and public-private partnerships were reportedly discussed — the idea that SpaceX might be the first to put human footprints on Mars seems less remote than it did a year ago.
So why is Elon Musk so eager to colonize the Red Planet? After all, at 95 percent carbon dioxide, its atmosphere is inhospitable to life, and its harsh climate nearly uninhabitable for humans. Getting there is also a dangerous months-long spaceflight gambit. Nonetheless, Musk has said it’s essential to become an interplanetary species lest humans face eventual extinction on Earth, and he believes his company can lead the way off our planet.
Musk’s ultimate vision is a Martian city of thousands if not millions of people — one that will require thousands of round-trips and 40 to 100 years to realize. But he’s determined to make this vision a reality, first by sending a Dragon 2 capsule to Mars in 2020 — to test out landing procedures, scout locations for future landings and try out technologies needed to land larger, heavier equipment on the Martian surface — and then again every 27 months as SpaceX transports tons of equipment to the Martian surface.