Red Planet Roulette: Time to Save for Move to Mars?

Astronaut on mars art
(Image credit: SpaceX)

Fancy a move to Mars? SpaceX chief Elon Musk envisions a colony of 1 million Earth emigrants calling the Red Planet home within 50 to 100 years, but early settlers be warned: the risk of death is high.

The trip, however, will be affordable, about $200,000 to start, with the goal of eventually cutting transportation costs to half that amount.

"The huge challenge is getting the cost such that enough people can afford to go to make it a self-sustaining civilization. That's the prime mission," Musk told reporters at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.

"If you're an explorer, if you want to be on the frontier and be where things are super exciting even if it's dangerous, that's really who we're appealing to here," Musk said.

(Image credit: SpaceX)

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Conditions make living on Mars extremely challenging. See how living on the Red Planet would be hard in this infographic. (Image credit: by Karl Tate, Infographics Artist)

"The risk of fatality will be high, there's no way around it," he added. "Basically, are you prepared to die? And if that's OK then you're a candidate for going."

With a fleet of reusable rockets and spaceships, Earth-orbiting refueling stations and fuel production also on Mars, Musk believes SpaceX can provide an affordable interplanetary transportation system that builds mostly on currently existing technology.

SpaceX is designing a 100-person spaceship that can make the trip to Mars in as little as three months, depending on how much cargo is aboard and the location of Mars at launch. Follow-on ships could carry 200 people or more. Optimistically, the first human mission would launch in 2024, or soon thereafter, Musk said.

Settlers would have the option of returning to Earth.

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"The number of people who will be willing to move to Mars is much greater if they know that they have the option of returning, even if they never actually return. Most of the people who went to the original English colonies in North America they never returned to Europe even once. But some did, and just knowing that if you don't like it there you could come back I think makes a big difference in people's willingness to go there in the first place.

"In any case, we need the spaceship back, so it's coming. You could jump onboard or not. You get a free return trip, if you want," he said.

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Once the ships start flying, Musk figures it will take 40- to 100 years to relocate 1 million people to Mars, at which point the colony would be self-sustaining and autonomous. Eventually, the colony could decide to terraform Mars to make it more suitable for human life, such as by warming the planet and creating oceans.

"Terraforming would take place over a long period of time and I think ultimately would be a decision for people of Mars. We need to get there in the first place," Musk said.

Musk unveiled his colonization plan to attract partners -- he figures development costs will be about $10 billion -- and push along other companies and organizations interested in Mars and other space settlements.

"It is really a decision as to whether we want to become a multi-planet species in a space-faring civilization or not. Some people think its fine to stay on Earth forever and some people don't but I think a future where we are a space-faring civilization and out there among the stars is infinitely more exciting and inspiring than one where we are not," Musk said.

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The SpaceX founder, who also runs Tesla Motors, is unsure he'd be part of the first crew to travel to Mars.

"I would definitely need to have a very good succession plan because the probability of death is quite high on the first mission and I'd like to see my kids grow up, so some pros and cons there," he said.

"I would like to go to orbit, maybe visit the space station and then ultimately go to Mars. I've got to make sure that if something goes wrong on the flight and I die that there's a good succession plan and that the mission of the company continues and that it doesn't somehow get taken over by investors who just want to maximize the profitability of the company and not go to Mars," Musk said. "That would be my biggest fear in that situation."

SpaceX is planning to launch an unmanned Red Dragon capsule to Mars as an initial test flight in 2018.

Originally published on Discovery News.

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Irene Klotz
Contributing Writer

Irene Klotz is a founding member and long-time contributor to She concurrently spent 25 years as a wire service reporter and freelance writer, specializing in space exploration, planetary science, astronomy and the search for life beyond Earth. A graduate of Northwestern University, Irene currently serves as Space Editor for Aviation Week & Space Technology.