Elon Musk Reveals Vision for a SpaceX City on Mars

Elon Musk has revealed his vision for what a SpaceX city on Mars would look like, saying he wants people to believe setting up a colony on the Red Planet will be possible within our lifetimes.

The founder of SpaceX (Space Exploration Technologies Corporation) has discussed the possibility of creating a human settlement on Mars for several years. The company is currently planning to send a robotic mission to Mars by 2024, and says that manned missions could begin as early as 2024—long before NASA's projected timescale of the early 2030s.

In a commentary piece published in the journal New Space, Musk outlines how he plans to build a city on the planet and what the next steps in space exploration could be.

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Artist impression of a Mars colonist. SpaceX

"By talking about the SpaceX Mars architecture, I want to make Mars seem possible—make it seem as though it is something that we can do in our lifetime," he writes. "There really is a way that anyone could go if they wanted to."

He said there are two fundamental paths for mankind—that we stay on Earth forever, eventually succumbing to an extinction event, or to become a "space bearing-civilization and a multi-planetary species."

The latter options, Musk says, is the "right way to go," adding that in our solar system, Mars is really the only option: "We could conceivably go to our moon, and I actually have nothing against going to the moon, but I think it is challenging to become multi-planetary on the moon because it is much smaller than a planet. It does not have any atmosphere. It is not as resource-rich as Mars. It has got a 28-day day, whereas the Mars day is 24.5 hours. In general, Mars is far better-suited ultimately to scale up to be a self-sustaining civilization."

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Artist impression of a ship heading to Mars. SpaceX

In the commentary, Musk discusses what life on Mars would be like: "Mars is about half as far [again] from the sun as Earth is, so it still has decent sunlight. It is a little cold, but we can warm it up. It has a very helpful atmosphere, which, being primarily CO2 with some nitrogen and argon and a few other trace elements, means that we can grow plants on Mars just by compressing the atmosphere.

"It would be quite fun to be on Mars because you would have gravity that is about 37 percent of that of Earth, so you would be able to lift heavy things and bound around. Furthermore, the day is remarkably close to that of Earth. We just need to change the populations because currently we have seven billion people on Earth and none on Mars."

Outlining how SpaceX will go about setting up a city on Mars, Musk said there will be many obstacles to overcome. Firstly, the cost. He said the price of a trip to Mars must come down so anyone who wants to go (if they save up) will be able to. "You cannot create a self-sustaining civilization if the ticket price is $10 billion per person," he said.

All materials sent up to the planet will need to be reusable. There would need to be a refueling station orbiting the planet so we can make more frequent, cheaper trips. On top of this, we will need to produce a propellant on the surface that would allow spaceships to make return trips: "It would be pretty absurd to try to build a city on Mars if your spaceships just stayed on Mars and did not go back to Earth. You would have a massive graveyard of ships; you have to do something with them."

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Artist impression of Mars colonists arriving at the Red Planet. SpaceX

On the ships that would transport people to Mars, he said the first Mars Colonial fleet would "depart en masse," carrying with them the required cargo and the first settlers. "[The ship] needs to fit 100 people or thereabouts in the pressurized section, carry the luggage and all of the unpressurized cargo to build propellant plants, and to build everything from iron foundries to pizza joints to you name it—we need to carry a lot of cargo."

Musk believes the threshold for a self-sustaining city on Mars would be a million people. Current calculations indicate that it would take between 40 to 100 years "to achieve a fully self-sustaining civilization on Mars."

While Musk does not explain how the city would be built or what it would look like, he does share his view on where a permanent city on Mars could take us next—pretty much anywhere in the solar system.

With the right technology, he believes a base on Mars would open the door to even greater space exploration. "By establishing a propellant depot, say on Enceladus or Europa, and then establishing another one on Titan, Saturn's moon, and then perhaps another one further out on Pluto or elsewhere in the solar system, this system really gives you the freedom to go anywhere you want in the greater solar system," Musk said.