Sunday, December 25, 2011

Elon Musk Plans To Put Millions Of People On Mars

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I'll Put Millions of People on Mars, says Elon Musk

posted Dec 22, 2011 9:10 PM by Michael Stoltz   [ updated Dec 22, 2011 9:29 PM ]
By Greg Klerkx, New Scientist, 12.22.11
The swashbuckling SpaceX founder says that he can get to Mars on a shoestring within 20 years – thanks to the fully reusable rockets he's determined to build.
ELON MUSK has an unusual new decorative item in his office at SpaceX, the California-based space company he founded in 2002. On his desk are the usual models of the iconic Saturn V rocket and Apollo spacecraft alongside pieces of the SpaceX vehicles Musk envisions as their successors. Photographs of his five children are dotted among the space memorabilia. Hung on a wall there is a large photo of Muhammad Ali. And near it is a very lethal-looking sword. Perhaps it is appropriate given Musk's fearsome reputation as an entrepreneur.
By the age of 30, Musk had set up and sold two companies, including the online payment business PayPal, and he started two more before turning 40: SpaceX, and the electric vehicle business Tesla Motors. The sword was awarded to him in June as part of the Heinlein prize for accomplishments in commercial space activities, set up in honour of the American science fiction writer Robert Heinlein who supported the idea of commercial space travel. "It sure beats your average trophy," says Musk.
The sword is a replica of the one wielded by the swashbuckling hero of Heinlein's novel Glory Road. However, Musk perhaps more closely resembles Valentine Michael Smith, the charismatic protagonist of Heinlein's most famous book,Stranger in a Strange Land. Both are comfortable in the role of outsider, often remaining aloof, almost ethereal; both evince an almost super-human focus and energy. Another link is more obvious. Smith is born on Mars and comes to Earth; Musk would like to be the person who takes humankind to Mars.
That moment may be closer than anyone thinks. Musk declared recently that he could put a human on Mars in 10 to 20 years' time. It is a remarkable claim, yet even more astonishingly Musk tells me that he could do it for $5 billion, and possibly as little as $2 billion - a snip when you consider that the International Space Station (ISS) has cost at least $100 billion to build and operate, or that $2 billion is roughly the cost of launching four space shuttle missions.
Musk doesn't just want to stop at one human. In his Heinlein prize acceptance speech, he said he wants to put 10,000 people on Mars. Musk rarely makes public statements merely for effect but a call for 10,000 would-be Martians is extraordinary, even by his standards. When I query him on this point, he pauses. Is he reconsidering? Yes... but, as with so much else about Musk, not in a predictable way. "Ultimately we don't really want 10,000 people on Mars," he says, after letting the pause linger a few seconds more. "We want millions."
The first time I met Elon Musk was at a party for someone else's spaceship. It was 2004 and I spotted him amid the high-fiving crowd of VIPs gathered at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California to celebrate the first successful sub-orbital flight of Burt Rutan's now-legendary SpaceShipOne.
Musk went almost unnoticed in the heaving crowd, which isn't altogether surprising. Back then Elon Musk was not yet "Elon Musk" - international icon, purported inspiration for Iron Man's playboy alter ego Tony Stark in the movie franchise, and would-be rescuer of humankind's hopes of interplanetary glory. In fact, as the guests strained to lay hands on SpaceShipOne's sleek composite frame, Musk seemed almost reluctant to join in.
What's true about Musk, then and now, is his iconoclasm about the new space revolution, which is often characterised by doing things, like SpaceShipOne, without the help of space agencies such as NASA. As we stood on the steaming Mojave tarmac, Musk politely praised SpaceShipOne's achievement but quickly noted that getting into orbit would require eight times the speed and about 65 times the energy. He said that symbolic victories wouldn't achieve what he was certain was humankind's ultimate destiny: to become a multi-planetary species. And unlike Rutan who believes NASA is a nemesis to be vanquished, Musk believes that NASA is a critical part of any space-faring future.
Fast-forward seven years and Musk's importance to the modern space industry is undeniable. SpaceX launched its Falcon 9 rocket last year, the first successful new rocket in a generation that could carry heavy loads and the first of its class built from scratch by a privately financed company. In December 2010 another Falcon 9 carried a reusable capsule called Dragon that can be fitted for cargo, crew or a combination of both. It completed nearly two orbits before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean where it was recovered in much the same way as NASA retrieved returning Apollo capsules.
SpaceX is now preparing to send the Dragon capsule to dock with the ISS early next year. Dragon's closest competitor, the Orion capsule built by the US aerospace company and long-time NASA partner Lockheed Martin, won't attempt such a feat until 2013 at the earliest.
As well as making history, SpaceX is making money. Last year the company signed a $492 million deal to launch Iridium satellites, the largest single commercial launch contract in history. It also has a $1.6 billion contract to service the ISS, with options to provide another $3.1 billion's worth, too.
"I feel like what SpaceX has done considering the resources we've had is pretty impressive," says Musk. "We started off with just me in the beginning and now we're almost 1500 people. And that's double what we had two years ago."
Such numbers dwarf the achievements of previous space entrepreneurs. But Musk isn't your typical space junkie. True, he read Heinlein and Isaac Asimov as a boy growing up in South Africa. He also built model rockets with his younger brother and frequent business partner, Kimbal, which he says "was a little more challenging in South Africa because there was nothing off-the-shelf. We made the rockets and mixed the fuel." But when it came to spaceflight ambitions, Musk was always more Scotty than Kirk: "I never wanted to be an astronaut or anything like that," he says.
Musk does have a driving cosmic ideology though: "This is the first time in four billion years that life has the possibility to move beyond Earth," he says. He passionately believes we need to move fast to avoid losing the knowledge and expertise we have built up. "The window to become multi-planetary is open now and we need to take advantage of it now, just in case it closes," he says.
Pronouncements like this, which Musk offers frequently, have occasionally led to accusations of egomania. But rather Musk seems to be someone who doesn't suffer fools gladly. "Pah!" is his response to those lamenting the demise of the space shuttle. "It is a massive opportunity!" The only vaguely kind words Musk has for the shuttle is that it was an experiment in the right area: rapid reusability. "That's been critical in every mode of transport in history, whether it's horses, bicycles or cars," he says.

Reusable rockets

The urgency in Musk's voice makes it clear that reusability is what truly motivates him where SpaceX is concerned: "That we don't really have it with space travel has been a choice and I think a tragic one," he says, his voice tinged with regret. "It's meant we've not gone beyond Earth's orbit in a generation. I want to change that. Rapid reusability is what will take us to Mars."
The fact that humans have not yet been to Mars isn't down to lack of interest. Schemes, sketches and plans for sending humans to the Red Planet have been around as long as the space age itself, beginning with NASA rocket guru Wernher von Braun, who envisioned a massive Mars-bound spacecraft built in orbit. The Saturn rockets - and even the space shuttle - were mooted for use in Mars missions, as were more daring concepts such as nuclear rockets.
Virtually every conceivable part of a Mars mission has been, or is, the subject of testing and experimentation by one of the world's space agencies or their satellite companies and laboratories. While there continues to be debate about hazards like deep-space radiation and micrometeorite impacts, there is broad agreement over why any serious humans-to-Mars plan has failed to get off the drawing board. It's simply too expensive.
The price tag for a Mars mission varies as widely as the concepts for achieving it, from $20 billion to $500 billion. And as the decades pass, the cost has typically gone up, not down. NASA still aspires to send humans to Mars one day, though it has largely abandoned actual planning.
Musk knows that his rockets aren't yet affordable enough for a feasible Mars mission. The reason is that of the $60 million cost of launching a Falcon 9, just 3 per cent is fuel. The remaining $58 million is predominantly hardware - all of which can only be used once. So, Musk admits that with the present Falcon design he has lost the reusability fight.
But that is set to change. In September Musk announced the company's plans for developing a fully reusable space launch system. The concept would see the rocket's first stage - the one that separates at the lowest altitude - reignite its engines and coast to a vertical landing at the launch site. If that sounds tricky, the following part of Musk's plan is harder still.
The rocket's second stage, which would be well into orbit after delivering its payload, needs to flip nose-first and endure the fiery re-entry into Earth's atmosphere with a special heat-shielded nose cone, before flipping over again, firing its engines and landing like the first stage. Even if it works, the extra fuel and heat shielding are likely to add weight and cost, which could make Musk's reusable rockets far more expensive than his current Falcon line-up.
"Reusability is ridiculously hard," he says. "But it's the thing we're working hardest at."
Musk is eventually hoping to build this kind of reusability into SpaceX's newest launch vehicle, the Falcon Heavy. Scheduled for testing in early 2013, Falcon Heavy will be the largest rocket flown since NASA's Saturn V launched astronauts to the moon. Musk says that a reusable version of the rocket could deliver a payload of up to 15 tonnes to Mars at a cost of $100 to $200 per kilogram. That makes his $5 billion humans-to-Mars price tag seem realistic. Even so, the Falcon Heavy would need to be "heavier" still to carry the minimum 50-tonne payload needed for a Mars mission. But Musk, whose title at SpaceX is CEO and chief technology officer, is working on that too.
At no point in our discussions does he withdraw or alter his 10 to 20 year time-frame for Mars. Even at the far end of that range, Musk would be only 60 when the first Martian expedition launched. Would he consider going on that first trip? "If someone had solved the rapidly reusable launch system problem, then yes, I'd definitely go," he says. "But if it were simply a one-time flight, then no, because I'd need to stay and keep at the challenge with SpaceX. It is too important. This is something that I'm in for the long haul."
[Images: SpaceX]

Friday, December 9, 2011

A Report From The Russian Space Agency On The Phobos Mission Failure

Dear Jack Waldbewohner,

Since you are a valued member of the Planetary Society team that helped launch our Phobos LIFE experiment, I want to share with you excerpts from a letter we just received from our colleagues at the Space Research Institute (IKI) of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

As you’ll read, the Phobos-Grunt (Soil) spacecraft failed to leave Earth orbit after it was launched last month, carrying our LIFE capsule on what we hoped would be a round trip to Mars’ moon Phobos and back.

The letter came from Lev Zelenyi, Director of the Space Research Institute. It reads:

“As you may already know, the launch of the Phobos-Soil spacecraft was a failure. On November 8, 2011 the spacecraft was put into the near Earth orbit, however, the booster did not turn on, and, therefore, the spacecraft did not manage to change this initial orbit and transfer to the interplanetary trajectory. The reason of this failure has not been determined yet.

“Immediately after this unpredictable event all forces of the mission control team were concentrated in order to attempt to establish communication with the spacecraft. Several foreign organizations, in particular, ESOC-ESA, DSN-JPL-NASA, NORAD-STRATCOM, numerous amateur observers tracked the spacecraft to establish communication with it and determine parameters of the orbit, its orientation and attitude. However, despite people being at work 24 / 7 since the launch, all these attempts have not yield any satisfactory results. We are grateful to our foreign colleagues, who provided us with every list of information about the spacecraft which was crucial at the time.

“Currently, the spacecraft is rotating at the near Earth orbit, lowering every day, and we expect that it is to enter the atmosphere in several weeks. Lavochkin Association specialists will continue their attempts to establish connection with the spacecraft and send commands until the very end of its existence. We are working nevertheless on the issue of re-entry and probability of where and which fragments may hit the ground (if any).

“We would like to express our deep gratitude to you and all the scientists and specialists for collaboration on the Phobos-Soil Mission, preparation of scientific instruments and provision of ground support. We are deeply sorry about the failure of the Phobos-Soil Mission. We hope in future to continue our collaboration on space science projects.”

The loss of Phobos LIFE is a blow, but we are already recovering and looking forward to the future. We are even now analyzing the microorganisms that flew with our Shuttle LIFE project on the last flight of Endeavour, and we are seeking out future exploratory opportunities to share with you.

With your invaluable help and support, we know that together we will make our future in space vibrant, coming ever closer to our shared goals of understanding and appreciating the worlds around us.

Thank you again for all your support.


Bruce Betts,
Phobos LIFE Project Manager

The Space Review: The perils of spaceflight prediction

The Space Review: The perils of spaceflight prediction:

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