SpaceX: No One Laughs Anymore When We Talk About Colonizing Mars

When Elon Musk founded SpaceX, way back in 2002, the plan was to colonize Mars. The company is now profitable, America’s number one choice for flying astronauts to the International Space Station, and thinking about building a satellite-based internet to connect the world. But all of those are stepping stones for the Mars plan, which is very much still the focus of the company.

“We’re not shy about talking about Mars, which would be an extraordinary step for humans, to actually have a settlement there,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said Tuesday at the Satellite conference in Washington, DC. “The whole company is geared up on that, everybody’s eye is on the Red Planet.”

Mars One, a long shot, crowdsourced plan to colonize Mars, ​is apparently in shambles, so, even on the non-SpaceX front, there’s not much in the way of a concrete plan to get to Mars. We know that SpaceX is developing a methane-based rocket engine known as Raptor to get to Mars, but beyond that, much of it is speculative. That said, the company is still deadly serious about getting there, eventually.

“When we talked about Mars before, people thought we were certifiable,” Shotwell said. “Now, people kind of groove on it and they like to hear about it.”

“There is a surprising number of people that want to leave Earth, we believe there is a commercial application for any Mars mission,” she added.

At the conference, Shotwell dished on a few other notable topics:

Expect more launches

The company is trying to up its “launch cadence to one or two a month at every launch site we have.” With four launch sites scheduled to be active by next year, that could mean as many as 96 launches a year.

And a new rocket

SpaceX is doing a reboot of its Falcon 9 rocket this summer, when it plans to start using what it’s calling the “Full Performance Falcon 9,” or version 1.2 of the Falcon 9. The new Falcon 9 will boost the rocket’s performance by about 30 percent over the one that’s being flown now. Shotwell said the reworked rocket will let the company land the rocket for reuse a little easier.

“When we first launched [the Falcon 9], there was extra performance to go get, but we ran out of time with our customer commitments, so now we’ve gone back and gotten extra performance out of them,” she said.

About that space internet

I’d take this one with a grain of salt: Shotwell says that the Google / Fidelity investment of $1 billion announced earlier this year had little to do with internet satellites, but was was instead a straightforward investment in the company.

“Google and Fidelity invested in SpaceX for their own business purposes, it wasn’t for a global internet project,” she said. “There’s a huge interest in that arena right now, and we felt like, well, everybody is doing it, we should take a look at this market as well.”

SpaceX is making a ton of money sticking close(ish) to Earth. But the company’s eyes are still on Mars, even when it’s talking explicitly about services that people on Earth are clamoring for.

“The [satellite project is] very much in the exploratory phases right now, so if I knew more, I would say a lot more,” Shotwell said, before adding a bit jokingly that Martians are going to need the internet, too.

“When you put folks on Mars, you’re going to have to have a global internet around Mars,” she said.

The quip got some laughs, but, hey, you never know.



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