Commercial Flights to Mars


While Elon Musk’s Tesla, Inc., is struggling to recover from its toughest year ever, Musk's SpaceX is seeing a better year in gaining business and striding forward on its grand vision of taking passengers to Mars.

Musk is moving forward on his company's Big Falcon Booster, with a factory being built in the Port of Los Angeles, 15 miles south of the SpaceX headquarters as the BFB gets ready to take customers on the 140 million-mile trip to Mars. SpaceX provides a great platform to continue sharing Musk’s grand vision of humanity’s future, and this time with government support from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The U.S. federal government has taken a dim view of Musk on the Tesla side of the business through a lawsuit filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission over allegations that the Tesla CEO committed fraud when he said he had secured the funding needed to take Tesla private. Tesla is seeing a bright spot with a federal judge approving Musk’s settlement with the SEC.

The electric carmaker has very much needed good news during a year when production and deliveries of its Model 3 sedan have been pushed to extremes as Musk fails to meet his original forecast on hitting timelines. Along with disappointed Model 3 owners who’d made their down payments, Musk has been working to assure institutional investors that the company can become profitable.

He’s also facing concerns from the Tesla board of directors over his mental stability and ability to run both Tesla and SpaceX. Tesla stock prices have seen highs and lows during a difficult year.

Musk and his SpaceX team work under the mission statement of pursuing the "ultimate goal of enabling human life on Mars.” The company’s website displays an image of a rusty-red planet morphing into an Earth-like world. That will come from what Musk calls “terraforming,” where the planet’s carbon-dioxide-rich ice caps are melted and Mars transforms in a warm, wet planet capable of sustaining life.

It’s a lofty goal that even NASA doesn’t believe is possible. SpaceX does believe it to be true, and is pursuing a mission to construct the first city on Mars for thousands of human beings from planet Earth to call home — by the 2030s.

The timeline appears to be launching the Big Falcon and putting the ship into orbit by 2021; launching two missions to Mars with cargo and supplies by 2022; landing the Big Falcon on Mars by 2023; launching the first flight with people and sending them around the moon in 2023; blasting off the first human voyage to Mars by 2024, with passengers walking on the red planet by 2025; finish building the Mars Base Alpha by 2028; and possibly constructing the first city on Mars in the 2030s.

Musk started his vision before joining up with Tesla. In 2002, he founded SpaceX through his frustration that NASA wasn’t doing enough to get humans to Mars.

While the company has gone through tough times seeing its rockets explode during launches, the list of accomplishments has been impressive. It all started with the Falcon 1, followed by the Grasshopper, a small self-landing test rocket. The Falcon 9, a reusable orbital-class launcher came out next and then the Dragon, a spaceship for cargo and which will soon transport NASA astronauts. Most recently, the Falcon Heavy, a super-heavy-lift launcher, has been developed.

Gwynne Shotwell, the president and chief operating officer of SpaceX, has said the company plans to test-launch a prototype ship in short "hops" (not reaching orbit) from southern Texas in late 2019. The company is preparing to face failure and more exploding rockets during test launches, which Musk has renamed "rapid unscheduled disassembly.”

It's also a time when Musk's business model is coming together — SpaceX now leads the market in best, most competitive prices to deliver payloads into space for customers such as the U.S. Air Force, which will be paying Musk's company $96.5 million to launch a GPS satellite in 2019.

The company charges $62 million to move commercial satellites into orbit for the customer by using its 230-foot-long Falcon 9 that can carry satellites weighing up to 50,000 pounds. The closest competitor is the United Launch Alliance Atlas V; its pricing starts at $73 million for up to a 41,000-pound payload. United Launch is operated through a joint venture by SpaceX’s two chief competitors, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

SpaceX may see more opportunity coming from an aborted mission of Russia's Soyuz rocket ferrying a crew to the International Space Station (ISS) which resulted in an emergency landing this week.

Musk has already gained a customer for space travel, a Japanese fashion tycoon who wants to take a flight around the moon. Last month, Musk announced that Yusaku Maezawa, 42, was excited to be taking a trip around the moon in 2023. It would be the first trip like it since 1972.

Another piece of good news showed up in early October when the Falcon 9 successfully launched a satellite into space from California. The rocket was able to carry Argentine satellite SAOCOM 1A into orbit from the Vandenberg Air Force Base, on the coast northwest of Los Angeles. California residents were wowed by the spectacle, and posted videos and photos of the skies after the successful take-off, including LA mayor Eric Garcetti.

Along with aerospace giants Boeing and Lockheed Martin, Musk is facing another competitor: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. His rocket company, Blue Origin, last week won a $500-million contract to develop its New Glenn rocket to launch military and spy satellites for the U.S. government. SpaceX and other bidders lost out on winning the contract.

Bezos acknowledged Blue Origin being a SpaceX competitor, but he’s careful not to focus too much on it. Besides, Blue Origin’s New Shepard Rocket will be more of space tourism business rather than cargo missions and taking passengers to Mars.

“I keep telling my team, it’s not a race,” Bezos said.

Jon LeSage for