SpaceX's first crewed mission to Mars could be just four years away.
Company founder and CEO Elon Musk said on Tuesday (Dec. 1) that he's "highly confident" SpaceX will launch people toward the Red Planet in 2026, adding that the milestone could come as early as 2024 "if we get lucky."
Musk made the remarks during a webcast interview with Mathias Döpfner, CEO of the German media company Axel Springer SE. The two spoke at Axel Springer's Berlin headquarters as part of a ceremony honoring Musk, who won this year's Axel Springer Award.
"And then we want to try to send an uncrewed vehicle there in two years," Musk told Döpfner. (The two-year target intervals are dictated by orbital dynamics: Earth and Mars align favorably for interplanetary launches just once every 26 months.)
Related: Starship and Super Heavy: SpaceX's Mars-colonizing vehicles in images
The vehicle that will make these Mars trips is the 165-foot-tall (50 meters) Starship, which will launch from Earth atop a giant rocket known as Super Heavy. Both of these craft will be fully and rapidly reusable; Super Heavy will return to Earth for vertical touchdowns shortly after liftoff, and Starship will be able to fly from Earth orbit to Mars and back again many times, Musk has said. (Starship will be powerful enough to launch itself off both Mars and the moon, which have much weaker gravitational pulls than that of Earth.)
SpaceX is iterating toward the final Starship via a series of prototypes, the latest of which, SN8 ("Serial No. 8"), is gearing up for a big test flight. SpaceX aims to launch the three-engine SN8 to a target altitude of 9 miles (15 kilometers) this week, Musk said recently.
That's far higher than any other Starship prototype has flown to date. Three single-engine variants — Starhopper, SN5 and SN6 — reached a maximum altitude of about 500 feet (150 meters) on their test flights, which occurred last summer and this past August and September, respectively.
The final Starship will sport six of SpaceX's powerful new Raptor engines, Musk has said. Super Heavy will sport about 30 Raptors.
Musk has long stressed that he founded SpaceX in 2002 primarily to help humanity become a multiplanet species. He reiterated that goal during his conversation with Döpfner and also doubled down on another previously stated desire: He wants to die on Mars.
"Just not on impact," Musk joked.
Tuesday's discussion was wide-ranging, touching on a number of Musk's ventures and passions. For example, Musk expressed confidence that his electric-car company, Tesla, will introduce a fully autonomous driving capability next year (though he stressed that it's unclear when regulators will approve fully autonomous driving).
The annual Axel Springer Award "is given to outstanding personalities who are particularly innovative, and who generate and change markets, influence culture and at the same time face up to their responsibility to society," company representatives wrote in a description of the award. It's a "prestige prize without prize money," the description adds.
Previous Axel Springer Award winners include Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, who also runs the spaceflight company Blue Origin (2018), World Wide Web inventor Timothy Berners-Lee (2017) and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (2016).
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.