Out of This World? Elon Musk Is Beating NASA in the Race to Mars

Artwork by Philip Kelleher

Oby Christopher Convey ’18


On July 20, 1969, NASA’s Apollo 11 program successfully landed men on the moon. Although this was an astounding accomplishment at the time, the United States now has an even farther target in sight: the Red Planet. That’s right, men on Mars.

What seemed impossible 48 years ago is now a very enticing possibility. As technology constantly improves, this mission, once a dream, is rapidly becoming more of a realistic possibility. The question is: how do we intend to get to Mars, located a staggering 141.6 million miles away from our home? Many believe this decades-old dream can be achieved through the work of one man – Elon Musk.

Musk, the self-made technology tycoon, isn’t the average billionaire. He received bachelor’s degrees in physics and economics from the University of Pennsylvania and shortly thereafter cofounded Paypal, launching his successful career. Musk has a net worth of $20.5 billion, primarily from his job as CEO of the revolutionary all-electric motor company, Tesla, Inc., and from founding Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in May of 2002. SpaceX develops and manufactures space launch vehicles with a focus on advancing the state of rocket technology.

SpaceX, specifically its series of Falcon rockets, is currently Musk’s top priority. Musk has a long-term goal of enabling people to travel throughout space and live on other planets. The first milestone in reaching that goal was accomplished back in 2008, when SpaceX’s Falcon 1 rocket became the first privately funded, liquid-fueled vehicle to put a satellite into Earth’s orbit.

SpaceX is one of just two companies awarded a contract by NASA to help develop a U.S. astronaut transport. NASA is particularly interested in Musk’s multi-billion dollar corporation due to the fact that SpaceX’s technology is years ahead of the competition.

SpaceX has a secret weapon when it comes to rockets – they can land themselves. After launch, the Falcon rockets fall into a controlled descent, as miniature boosters keep the rocket upright and guide it to its landing pad. This opens the door to a wide range of benefits. For one, the rockets can be reused.  Each of NASA’s space shuttle launches costs around $1.5 billion (approximately $27,000 per pound of cargo launched into low Earth orbit). SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, on the other hand, costs only $57 million per launch (approximately $2,500 per pound of cargo launched into low Earth orbit). This tremendous cost differential is part of what makes SpaceX so appealing.

While his technology itself is rather impressive, Musk has something even more ambitious in mind with a mission to Mars. NASA’s SLS, or Space Launch System, is the most powerful rocket ever tested, and the organization plans on using it to bring men to Mars. Elon Musk and his team of engineers, however, manufactured the Falcon Heavy rocket, which, once tested, will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two. In addition to having 27 Merlin engines that produce five million pounds of thrust, the Falcon Heavy is also able to return to Earth on the landing pad. Capable of delivering more than double the payload of NASA’s shuttles, the Falcon Heavy will make manned missions to Mars much more practical.

At the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, D.C., Musk said, “I think Falcon Heavy is going to be a great vehicle. There’s just so much that’s really impossible to test on the ground, and we’ll do our best. It actually ended up being way harder to do Falcon Heavy than we thought.”

But it’s almost ready, and if all goes according to plan, SpaceX will now launch the Falcon Heavy from Cape Canaveral, Florida towards the end of December.

Elon Musk is more than just a tech geek, billionaire, and space fanatic. Keeping in line with his endeavor to make spaceflight available to all individuals, one of Musk’s goals is to reduce the cost by a factor of ten; this includes the mission to Mars. SpaceX intends to launch their Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon Heavy in 2018 to soft-land on Mars. This will be a precursor to the manned flights scheduled to begin 2024.

At their current pace, Musk and SpaceX aim to put humans on Mars a full ten years ahead of NASA. Musk stressed the importance of colonizing Mars back in 2012, stating, “An asteroid or a supervolcano could destroy us, and we face risks the dinosaurs never saw: an engineered virus, inadvertent creation of a micro black hole, catastrophic global warming, or some as-yet-unknown technology could spell the end of us. Humankind evolved over millions of years, but in the last 60 years atomic weaponry created the potential to extinguish ourselves. Sooner or later, we must expand life beyond this green and blue ball—or go extinct.”

Elon Musk is testing the limits of technology for the better of humanity. From producing all-electric cars and renewable energy to experimenting with reusable rocket boosters and spaceflight, Musk has become the face of technological innovation. He has paved the way for our future, whether that be here, on the Red Planet, or beyond.