To "be out there among the stars ... That's the future that's exciting.
You need things like that to be glad to wake up in the morning. Life
can't just be about solving problems, they have to be inspiring and
make you glad to be alive."
-- Elon Musk
Don't look now, but Elon Musk is making waves in the tech world, again.
Coming from the guy who runs the show at Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) and SpaceX, and chairs the board at SolarCity (NASDAQ: SCTY), this probably shouldn't be surprising. But some of the predictions that Musk made at the high-tech "Code Conference" in Rancho Palos Verdes earlier this month surely will surprise you. The following are just a few of them.
2018: Mars or bust
The year 2018 could be a very important one for Elon Musk -- and in a couple of ways. Three months ago, Musk predicted that Tesla would be churning out 500,000 electric cars annually by 2020. Last month, the Tesla CEO moved up the timeline on that 500,000-unit target to 2018. But that's not all Musk wants to do in 2018.
As he explained to the audience at the Code Conference, 2018 will be the year that SpaceX lands its first rocket ship on Mars -- specifically, a Dragon 2 rocket ship, recently dubbed the "Red Dragon."
Red Dragon will be SpaceX's first mission to Mars, but it won't be the last. Musk went on to explain how the respective solar orbits of the Earth and Mars bring the two planets into relative close proximity once every 26 months. Thus, subsequent unmanned missions to Mars might depart from Earth roughly every two years.
2025: Footprints on Mars
What will all these spaceships do once they arrive on Mars? Why are they going to Mars in the first place -- other than the obvious reason...because it's there? Well, they'll be carrying supplies... for a planned manned Mars mission that will depart Earth in 2024, and arrive on Mars in 2025.
Food, water, fuel, medical supplies, equipment, and -- I'd be willing to bet on this -- fresh potatoes -- all of these things need to be ready and waiting on Mars when the first astronauts step out of Red Dragon and onto the Red Planet. And between 2018 and 2025, Musk should have time to shoot off at least two or three supply missions to Mars, and possibly more. (The once-in-26 months window permits launching a spaceship to Mars, but doesn't limit SpaceX to launching just one mission per 26-month cycle.)
Musk also promised to provide more details on his exact plans for the manned Mars mission when he presents at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, in September.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch
SpaceX fans got a rare dose of disappointment this week when a Falcon 9 rocket carrying the two commercial communications satellites -- the Eutelsat 117 West B and ABS-2A -- successfully delivered both satellites to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). (This is as opposed to Low Earth Orbit, or LEO -- GTO is the more distant objective, in excess of 22,000 miles above Earth's surface.) Then it crashed into SpaceX's drone barge upon attempting a re-landing.
The Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly (RUD) of SpaceX's Falcon broke a string of what would have been four-straight-successful landings at sea, and SpaceX's fifth-successful landing, period. (Prior to figuring out sea landings, SpaceX had successfully landed one Falcon at its spaceport.) But it hasn't thrown SpaceX off stride.
At the Code Conference, Elon Musk announced a new target date for attempting to relaunch one of his landed rockets. "We plan to refly one of the landed rocket boosters hopefully in about two or three months, something like that," mused Musk.
The precise date of the attempt seems still in flux, but it looks like SpaceX will be attempting a rocket reuse sometime in August or September.
How much does a Falcon cost? Several milleniums -- er, millions
Perhaps now is a good time to re-examine the question of just why SpaceX is trying to land rockets vertically for later reuse, at all. There are really two reasons for this. Let's tackle the obvious one first: Cost.
As Elon Musk explains, "The boost stage [of a Falcon 9 rocket] is about 70% of the cost of the rocket ... it's sort of on the order of $30 to $35 million dollars." The boost stage on a Boeing (NYSE:BA) or Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT) rocket, by the way, cost a whole lot more than $35 million, but this just sharpens the point on Musk's next statement: "Imagine it's a pile of cash that was falling through the atmosphere, and it was going to burn up, and smash into tiny pieces, would you try to save it? Probably yes."
Faced with the same situation of money literally falling from the sky, Boeing and Lockheed Martin continue to allow their Atlas V and Delta IV rocket boosters to burn up in the atmosphere -- contributing to the stratospheric $225 million average cost of launches by the Boeing/Lockheed United Launch Alliance joint venture. SpaceX is going a different route: "We want to get [the booster] back. That way we don't have to make another one."
There are no landing strips on Mars
What's the other reason for trying to make SpaceX rockets reusable -- and in particular, for recovering them by landing them on their own jets, rather than building a space-shuttle lookalike, and landing it on a runway? Musk explains simply: "The plane thing is not a good idea in my view [because] if you're in space, wings are not very useful because there's no air. And if you want to go somewhere other than Earth, there's also no runways."
And because SpaceX is going to space, and SpaceX is going to Mars, well ... Q.E.D.