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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Will SpaceX Be on Its Way to Mars by 2018? Maybe. But That’s Not the Point.

By Phil Plait

In May, Elon Musk announced that SpaceX would be sending a Dragon capsule on its way to Mars by the end of 2018.

That’s pretty ambitious. After all, 2018 is soon.

But is it too soon? I wrote an article about Musk’s plan to go to Mars, and I still think SpaceX can do it. But can do it isn’t the same thing as will do it. The problems are essentially twofold: The hardware they’ll use to go to Mars (mostly the Falcon Heavy rocket and the upgraded Dragon capsule) is still untested, and the fact that, to coin a phrase, stuff happens. By that I mean the winds of chance: a launch delay, a wonky part that refuses to be diagnosed, a lawmaker who has a NASA rocket facility in their district and doesn’t want the competition … these can all add weeks or months to the countdown.

So when Taylor Quimby of the New Hampshire Public Radio show Word of Mouth called me to talk about it and settle a bet he had with his colleague Sam Evans-Brown, I tried to explain this all carefully.

You can listen to the interview on their website, or download the audio file directly.

In the end, the distinction I’m trying to make is that yes, SpaceX can get to Mars, and possibly even launch the mission before Dec. 31, 2018. But it seems to me, given the reality of the situation, it’s quite likely it’ll happen in 2019 or later.

Ask me again after the Falcon Heavy goes on its first voyage, and the upgraded Dragon is built and tested, too. Once SpaceX gets those up and running, well, the sky’s no longer the limit.

As I said in the interview, the real question is: Who will put humans on Mars first, NASA or SpaceX?

NASA’s plans to go to Mars are a bit vague but rely on the Space Launch System to do it (full disclosure: I’m not a big fan of SLS). Like the Falcon Heavy, SLS has not yet launched, and the first flight is planned for late 2018 (barring delays, of course). NASA doesn’t plan to have humans on board an SLS flight until at least 2023, with a Mars flight perhaps sometime “in the 2030s.” Musk recently announced he wants to put humans on Mars by 2024, another ambitious but potentially doable deadline. Even if delayed several years, SpaceX would have an edge over NASA.

The situation with SLS and Falcon Heavy is complex, and more than I want to dive into here; a longer, more thorough post will come where I lay out my current thoughts on it. But in the meantime, to be clear: The deadlines Musk has laid are ambitious but achievable, and even if they aren’t met, the ability of SpaceX to go to Mars and eventually put humans there should not be discounted.

It’s the way to bet.

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