SpaceX unveils spaceship that will take us to Mars, and the plan to get us there

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Sep 27, 2016, 5:36 PM EDT

Elon Musk has unveiled his full-scale plan to put humans on Mars — and as expected — it’s ambitious.

Put simply: SpaceX’s end goal is to build a fleet of ships that can hold 100-200 people and send enough people to literally colonize Mars on a large scale. They’ve already designed the ship that will carry those crews of 100+ to the Red Planet (though they still have to build it), and SpaceX has laid out plans for in-orbit fueling and reusable tech that will (hopefully) reduce the cost of space exploration dramatically. Musk, SpaceX’s founder, detailed his Mars plan during a keynote address at the International Astronautical Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico on Tuesday.

Most notably, SpaceX has finally announced the details of the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) ship, or “Mars Ship” as the first version has been nicknamed, which is a lynchpin of the company’s plan to put humans on Mars en masse. The ship is pretty big, at around 160+ feet tall with a diameter of around 55 feet. Stacked on top of SpaceX’s new BFR rocket (guess what that stands for), it’ll total an eye-popping height of 400 feet at launch. The rocket will have a liftoff thrust of 13,000 tons (Saturn V was 3,579 for the sake of reference). Once in orbit, the ship will be fueled by a fueling ship (with a similar design), then it’ll use that engine and 200 kW solar array panels for power on the journey to Mars.

Ideally, Musk wants to launch as many as 1,000 ships in a fleet (he even made the obligatory Battlestar Galactica reference here) so you’ll have close to 1 million people to jumpstart a new civilization on Mars. Despite the ambition on display, Musk was quick to point out it could take decades to a full century for his plan to fully come to fruition. It’ll also take a lot more participation than just SpaceX, and Musk hopes other private groups and governments will want to get involved.

“Obviously, it’s going to be a challenge to fund this whole endeavor. We do expect to generate  pretty decent net cash flow from launching a lot of satellites and servicing the space station for NASA,” Musk said. “Then I know there’s a lot of people in the private sector interested in helping fund a base on Mars. Then hopefully there’ll be interest on the government sector side to do that. Hopefully this will be a huge public-private partnership.”

The billionaire noted the first step is to reduce the cost per ticket to Mars by around 5 million percent, with a goal of getting it down to around the average cost of a home in the United States (around $200,000 per person). To do that, SpaceX will focus on fuel reusability, refilling ships in orbit, producing propellant on Mars, and choosing the right propellant to power the ships (Musk has decided on deep-cryo methalox, aka methane, which should be easier to produce on Mars).

In the meantime, SpaceX will still be moving forward with its plan to send the smaller Dragon capsules to Mars starting in 2018, and the company compared it to "a train leaving the station" to set the stage for these larger missions in the future.

The first ship will include its own propellant plant, to get the fuel-manufacturing process started on Mars, though it will be expanded upon in future missions. The average trip is estimated at around 115 days (with lows of 80 days and highs of 150 days). SpaceX showed off a gorgeous concept video of the new ship and rocket, and Musk noted the final version should look very similar to what’s on display, since they based the concept video on existing CAD designs from the R&D department. He also noted the company has been using its smaller Dragon capsules as a proving ground for the tech (i.e. heat shielding, etc.) that will power the larger transport craft.

As for the brave souls who decide to embark on those initial missions, Musk noted there will certainly be a great risk — though the reward of being one of the first colonists on another planet is certainly its own reward. Instead of focusing on the thought that one might never return to Earth, Musk turned his attention to the "sense of adventure" involved in this great exploration.

“Are you prepared to die? If that's okay, then you're a candidate for going … This is less about who goes there first... The thing that really matters is making a self-sustaining civilization on Mars as fast as possible. This is different than Apollo. This is really about minimizing existential risk and having a tremendous sense of adventure … I think it would be the most inspiring thing that I can possibly imagine. Life needs to be more than just solving problems every day. You need to wake up and be excited about the future, and be inspired, and want to live."

Check out Musk’s full two-hour keynote below: