SpaceX’s latest Mars vision: rocket for moon base, Mars city

His vision: humans traveling to Mars as soon as 2024, establishing a moon base or hopping from New York to Los Angeles in 25 minutes.

All those things would be possible with the giant rocket and spaceship that SpaceX hopes to have off the drawing board within 5 years, CEO Elon Musk said Friday.

“It’s 2017 – I mean, we should have a lunar base by now,” Musk said in a presentation to the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia.

Musk unveiled a system which updated a Mars system he first proposed a year ago. Standing 348 feet tall and 30 feet wide, and lifting off with 31 engines blazing, the revised design is downsized slightly from last year’s but still comparable to NASA’s Saturn V moon rocket.

The biggest difference, Musk said, is price.

“I think we’ve figured out how to pay for it,” he said. “This is very important.”

SpaceX would use the new rocket for everything from launching satellites to ferrying supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station to Mars voyages.

The system eventually would supplant the company’s current fleet of Falcon rockets and Dragon capsules, building upon technologies they developed.

The most important of those: the ability to precisely land and then reuse rockets, a breakthrough that has disrupted the industry’s historic practice of discarding big rockets after a single use.

“It’s really crazy that we build these sophisticated rockets, and then crash them every time we fly,” he said. “This is mad.”

Musk said SpaceX’s existing operations could fund the mega-rocket’s development.

So far, SpaceX has invested in prototypes of a massive composite propellant tank and the methane-fueled Raptor engine, both of which Musk showed last year.

The company’s potential interest in establishing a lunar outpost Musk called Moon Base Alpha, was new.

Musk is best known for his determination to colonize Mars, ensuring humanity becomes a multi-planetary species – his stated reason for starting SpaceX in 2002.

In the near-term, more commercial ventures and international partners may be interested in visiting the moon. But Musk made sure his Mars focus didn’t appear to be slipping, showing a graphic that detailed plans to launch a pair of cargo ships to the Red Planet in 2022.

“That’s not a typo, although it is aspirational,” he said.

Musk said construction of the first Mars-class ship would start within 9 months, and he felt “fairly confident” it could be ready for launch in about 5 years.

Astronauts would depart for Mars landings in 2024, the next time its orbit lined up with Earth’s, planning to build a fuel plant needed for the ships to return home.

Each ship could ultimately fly roughly 100 passengers in 40 cabins. They would enjoy the sort of amenities found on cruise ships along with some space-specific safety features, like a shelter from solar radiation blasts.

Over time, settlers would attempt to make the Martian climate more Earth’s — as scientists believe it may have been long ago — “making it a really nice place to be,” said Musk.

As a bonus the same systems, taking off and landing from barges, would be able to rocket people between points on Earth at 18,000 mph, reducing trips between New York and L.A. or Hong Kong and Singapore to less than a half-hour.

“If you’re building this thing to go to the moon and Mars, then why not go to other places on Earth as well?” he said, without discussing ticket costs.

If SpaceX achieved Musk’s wildly ambitious timeline, the private company would deliver people to Mars a decade or more before NASA hopes to.

The space agency is building its own big, non-reusable rocket, the Space Launch System, and Orion crew capsules with the goal of sending astronauts to orbit around the moon by 2023, and on a flyby of Mars by the early 2030s.

The 46-year-old Musk, who was speaking on the ninth anniversary of SpaceX launching its first, small rocket, hopes to move faster.

“The future is vastly more exciting and interesting if we’re a spacefaring civilization and a multi-planet species than if we’re not,” he said Friday. “I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”