Elon Musk's SpaceX plans to settle Mars before the century is out

Get ready for the first city on Mars.
Christopher McFadden
Artist's impression of Starship refuelling above Earth.Modified from SpaceX

Long the dream of many science fiction fans, if Elon Musk and SpaceX get their way, members of our species will indeed live on Mars within the next few decades. But, unlike in science fiction films and books, SpaceX is actually working to make this a genuine possibility. 

By making this one of the company's main focuses, both SpaceX and Musk are confident we'll make it happen by around 2050. Their plan is simple on paper, get some humans to the Red Planet by the end of the decade and then progressively build out a colony that will eventually support a million people.

In Musk's view, a highly ambitious plan to be sure, but one that is essential is if we are to become a multi-planet species as quickly as possible. If all goes to plan, Musk has publically stated that he believes we may actually establish the first Martian colonies as soon as 2029. 

Intrigued to find out more? Then let's take a look at SpaceX's plans for their "Mars City." 

 “You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great - and that’s what being a spacefaring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.” - Elon Musk

What is SpaceX Mars City?

As the name suggests, this is Musk's and SpaceX's proposal to establish a large, thriving permanent colony on Mars in the not too distant future. This city will be self-sustaining, and could, in theory, be home to around one million people. 

Mars City Spaceships
Artist's impression of what "Mars City" may look like. Source: SpaceX

In order to be truly self-sustaining, the city's population will need to be a mixture of people from all walks of life and not just consist of technical experts like scientists, researchers, and engineers. Getting to the colony will also likely require Terran emigrants to front up the cost of the spaceflight with their own assets or by using a loan

Historically speaking, this was the primary mechanism that early colonists and immigrants from Europe used to make a move to the Americas. Such a move in the future would likely be costly, but this was also the case in the past, relatively speaking. 

In the past, some people who couldn't afford the cost of a ticket to the "New World" would enter into "indentured servitude" until the debt was paid off. Clearly, this would not be the best start for a wannabe Martian colonist, but if completely voluntary, this may be the most common mechanism for most of the new population to start a new life on the Red Planet.

Since labor will probably be in short supply in the early years of the colony, an influx of a large willing workforce would be a massive boon to the developing economy of the Martian supercolony.

Once all the basic needs for a long-term human presence are set up (food, water, shelter, air, etc.), one of the following steps would be setting up administrative systems to actually manage the city. How this would develop is anyone's guess, but the hope is that the city would govern itself on its own terms. 

If similar in fashion to Starlink's internet service terms and conditions, this policy would be in stark contradiction to established world conventions like the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which states that the launch origin country is responsible for subsequent space activities. 

mars city proposals
Source: ABIBOO/SONet

This would require a fair amount of diplomatic wrangling to unpick and agree - especially in the colony's early years and especially if the colony were a private venture. As the new Martian city will likely be heavily reliant on resources from Earth, this sort of potential snag will need to be ironed out very quickly. 

Why is Elon Musk planning to build a city on Mars?

Musk, among others, sincerely believes that if our species is ever to survive long-term, it must find a way to escape Earth and find other refuges among the stars. Being our closest, most hospitable neighbor, Mars would make an excellent first step. 

It is not too far away, and there is growing evidence that it may have once supported life. If so, as Musk believes, it could again. 

If ever realized, SpaceX's Mars City would genuinely be a technological triumph and could be a critical step in futureproofing our species for thousands, perhaps millions of years to come. The journey to get there will not be easy, but people like Musk certainly believe it is a mission well worth pursuing. 

"Why are we doing this?" Musk asked at SpaceX's February 2022 Starship progress update.

"I think this is an incredibly important thing for the future of life itself ... there's always some chance that something could go wrong on Earth. Dinosaurs are not around anymore!" he added. 

To people like Musk, such an undertaking will be critical for our species' long-term survival, an insurance policy if you will, for all future generations of human beings. It will also, Musk hopes, inject our species with a long-term goal, something to inspire us all to strive for. 

Mars city coming soon
One day soon, Mars could become a second home for humanity. Source: Official SpaceX Photos/Flickr

"Life can't just be about solving problems," Musk added. "There have to be things that inspire you, that move your heart. When you wake up in the morning, you're excited about the future."

A lovely thought, but could this ever be realistically achieved? 

Can we go to Mars with SpaceX?

Does SpaceX have the capability to achieve this highly ambitious objective? Perhaps, perhaps not. 

The truth of the matter is yet to be seen, but SpaceX's current progress and publically stated ambitions are encouraging. 

However, it will not be a walk in the park. 

The plan for colonizing Mars primarily revolves around using SpaceX's Starship spacecraft. In case you are unaware, this is a fully-reuseable rocket that is still very much under development in Texas. 

The finished ship should be able to transport around 100 tons of stuff and 100 people per trip. To enable blastoff, Starship uses liquid oxygen and methane as fuel (as opposed to the rocket propellant used in the Falcon 9). 

This is a deliberate decision, as the idea would be for Starship to fly to Mars, refuel using resources found on the planet, and return to Terra Firma. Eventually, it might even be possible to build a network of refueling stations en route to Mars and beyond, to extend the range of craft like Starship. 

Mars City domes
Musk has previously stated that future Martian colonists will live inside giant domes. Source: SpaceX/Flickr

Since the entire premise of SpaceX's vision hinges on the Starship, is it really this ship that can do the job?

The Starship itself measures 160 feet (49m), but when paired with the Super Heavy booster, the entire construction measures 383 feet (117m). It’s designed to take more than 100 tons of payload as far as Mars, assuming SpaceX can solve the issue of adding more fuel in orbit.

The most current iteration of the Starship, designation SN15, has completed a series of test flights to date, with the latest (the fifth at the time of writing) completed on the 5th of May 2022. This was a high-altitude test, and the prototype is yet to reach orbit.

During this latest test, the ship was powered by a series of SpaceX's Raptor engines, which fired in sequence to get the large rocket to an altitude of 10km. SpaceX hopes to refine the design further to enable an orbital test flight of SN15 sometime this year. 

To date, each of the tests has been designed to improve SpaceX's understanding and development of a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo on long-duration interplanetary flights and help humanity return to the Moon and travel to Mars beyond.

All is well and good, but the SN15 only represents a portion of what SpaceX intends for the finished design.

Mars City Starship
An artist's impression of SpaceX's Starship on the Moon, bearing the classic NASA worm logo. Source: NASA

"SpaceX’s Starship spacecraft and Super Heavy rocket (collectively referred to as Starship) represent a fully reusable transportation system designed to carry both crew and cargo to Earth orbit, the Moon, Mars, and beyond. Starship will be the world’s most powerful launch vehicle ever developed, with the ability to carry in excess of 100 metric tonnes to Earth orbit.," explains SpaceX

For this reason, and until we are in a position to actually shoot for Mars, the Starship will initially be used to deliver payloads like satellites into orbit or to resupply space stations. It is also hoped that Starship will be used to supply a crewed mission around the Moon in about 2023

So, SpaceX has the vision and is developing some of the hardware needed. But, even with a craft like the completed Starship, it will be a monumental task. 

But that is only really half the story. Starship will also need to get to Mars, land on Mars's surface, and then take off and land again on Earth. We know SpaceX has made significant progress in developing reusable rockets that can land themselves, but it is yet to be seen if they can perform this trick on another world. 

"There is a huge amount of risk. It is going to cost a lot," Musk wrote in a paper on his proposed vision for Mars. "There is a good chance we will not succeed, but we are going to do our best and try to make as much progress as possible."

SpaceX does have a history of delivering on the seemingly impossible. When Musk founded the company in 2002, he wrote, "I thought we had maybe a 10 percent chance of doing anything — of even getting a rocket to orbit, let alone getting beyond that and taking Mars seriously."

After all, if SpaceX and Musk can't do it, who can? 

How much will it cost to build a city on Mars?

In short, a hell of a lot of money, but not as much as you may think. 

starship under construction
A closeup of Starship during the stacking process in August. Source: SpaceX

After all, what price can you really put on setting up humanity in another world? Especially if it means we can significantly improve our chances of long-term survival in the universe. 

It will take a lot of work and material to actually get equipment and, ultimately, human beings onto Mar's surface. Back in 2019, Musk himself admitted that it would probably take somewhere in one million tons of material to actualize a self-sustaining city on Mars. 

If we are to assume that all this material needs to be sourced from Earth, it would need to be transported to Mars over time. Using current technology, like SpaceX's own Starship, would take many roundtrips. 

It has been estimated that this would cost around $100,000 per ton to send cargo to Mars. If true, this would mean that the cost of simply transporting the necessary materials from Earth to Mars would be somewhere in the region of $100 billion. 

In all likelihood, however, financial costs for such an undertaking would be considerably more than this. Musk himself has even admitted it could be anywhere up to and including $10 trillion.

That is such an enormous number that it is challenging to imagine.

If we use the higher estimate, to put that into perspective, that would be roughly enough to buy all of the assets in the United Kingdom (valued at around $11.8 trillion). It is also approximately a quarter of the total sum of all physical fiat currency globally. Enough to solve a lot of Earth's existing problems.

spaceX rockets Mars City
A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifting off from launch pad 39A. Source: SpaceX

But, remember, we are proposing to build a new city on another planet. So, $10 trillion might be a steal? It depends. Estimates for building a new city on Earth range from about $30 billion for a new sustainable waterfront city in South Korea, to just under $1 billion for a new capital city in South Sudan.

While $10 trillion would buy a lot of sustainable developments on Earth, it may not be that expensive.

How does SpaceX intend on building a city on Mars? 

As we've mentioned above, the entire project would rely, initially at least, on the Starship. Initially, the plan would be to send two uncrewed Starships to Mars to get the ball rolling.

These Starships would be packed with equipment and supplies ready for future crewed flights a few years later when Earth and Mar's orbits are at their shortest distance from each other.

To get the Starship(s into space, enormous rockets will carry them from Earth's surface using a series of Raptor engines. While still in development, these rockets will be the most powerful ever created, and around three times stronger than the existing Merlin engines that propel SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets. 

The booster element of the Starship and rocket combo, collectively called the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), will then release its Starship payload and return to Earth with "pinpoint" accuracy. Musk even believes this could be perfected to such a level as to enable the rocket to land back on its original launch pad. 

Each booster will be designed to perform at least 1,000 launches and will deliver many Starships and fuel tankers (to top up Starships' tanks) throughout their lives. 

These first missions will also be tasked with scoping out the planet for useable natural resources. It is hoped, for example, to categorically confirm the scale and extent of ice and carbon dioxide levels in the Martian atmosphere. 

SpaceX rocket landings
The CRS-19 mission Source: SpaceX/Flickr

Both of these resources will be vital for being helpful with life support and utilizing them as raw resources for making fuel for future missions. 

When the time is right, several crewed Starships and more uncrewed ones will join the others already on Mars. Each crewed Starship will have enough pressurized cabin space for around 100 people in relative comfort. 

Once the Starship has made it into space with its budding colonists, it would take around seven months to travel to the Red Planet. When they arrive and safely land, these pioneers will be tasked with setting up a propellant depot, refueling the ships with liquid oxygen and methane (made from Martian ice and carbon dioxide), and sending them back to Earth.

Over time, the plan is for Starships (crewed and uncrewed) to mass in orbit and then make their voyage to Mars every 26 months, when the Earth and Mars are at their closest approaches.

SpaceX believes it should be possible to have built enough infrastructure for the early settlement by rinsing and repeating this process. If 1,000s of ITS systems could be made, it should be possible to ferry around 1,000,000 people to the Red Planet over a few decades. 

Mars City Spaceship
Source: SpaceX/Flickr

One of the critical elements of the strategy is the reusability of most elements of the ITS. Not only will the boosters be reused, but also the Spaceships and fuel tankers themselves. Both of the latter will be able to perform roundtrips between the planets several times before likely being retired. The Starship, for example, should be able to come and go from Mars between 12 and 15 times. 

The fuel tankers should be able to do the same roughly 100 times. To reach the 2050 deadline, Musk stated, the team would probably have to start by around 2024. Although, recently, Musk admitted that the Starships' first trip to Mars is now planned for 2029. 

Martian pioneers will also need to establish and build recycling schemes, landing pads, habitats, greenhouses, and further life support schemes to ensure the colony could actually become relatively self-sufficient. 

However, it is important to note that SpaceX does not intend to complete this task using its own resources entirely. Since the living colony will need a large human population to be viable, it will need help from other public and private bodies. 

Spaceship landed
Source: SpaceX

It is likely, for example, that NASA and its extensive established international network of suppliers will need to collaborate quite heavily. Yet other companies (and those that may arise in the future) are already working on potential designs for the actual infrastructure and habitats that could be built on the planet. Others are also working on potential designs for Martian orbital outposts that could help lighten the logistic load. 

This combination of partners and investment will, it is hoped, enable all concerned to build up the infrastructure, workforce, and resources to make this most ambitious of dreams a very real future for our species. 

Are you ready for a future on Mars? You'd better be. It might come within your lifetime.

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