Elon Musk addresses an audience at the Royal Aeronautical Society.
The man behind the first commercial flight to dock with the International Space Station revealed that a stowaway could have survived and returned to Earth in the Dragon capsule that made the historic resupply flight in May of this year.
But he advised that it was probably better to wait until crewed capability is developed for the Dragon capsule in around three years time.
Elon Musk, the founder and Chief Technological Officer of SpaceX was speaking at the Royal Aeronautical Society in London on Friday 16 November.
“In the cargo version of Dragon we maintain sea level pressure and we maintain the temperature very precisely because we’re required to transport experiments that have plants and mice and fish to orbit and back,” he said.
“But in order for it to be really safe enough, the need for us for Dragon version two is the testing of the launch escape system and that’s what drives the three-year time frame.”
Musk gave the audience of aeronautical industry insiders a detailed and technical update on the development of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, during which he explained the company’s next goal.
“Where we’re going now is to the next generation of Falcon 9, which will have vertical take off and landing capability,” he said, explaining that the so-called Project Grasshopper aimed to transform spaceflight through rapid reusability.
“Like with an aircraft, we want to be able to reload propellant and fly the rocket again.
It would be dramatically more cost effective to get to orbit.”
The entrepreneur behind Tesla electric cars was upbeat about the future of commercial rocket flight but talked about the difficulty of seeing today where things will be in the future.
“Just as in the early days of aviation, I don’t think people could have envisioned that you would be able to take a 747 non stop from Los Angeles to London,” he said.
“But if we enable that capability and improve the technology then I think it would open up opportunities that are hard to appreciate today.”
He saw full reusability within five or six years.
Reusability and greater cost-effectiveness, Musk said, were pivotal to establishing a self-sustaining civilization on Mars.
“It’s the difference between something costing 0.5% of GDP or all of GDP,” he continued.
“Obviously it can’t be all of GDP, but I think most people would agree that even if they don’t intend to go themselves, spending 0.5% of GDP much on establishing a civilization on another planet is probably worth doing – sort of life insurance for life collectively – and that seems like a reasonable insurance premium.
And plus it would be a fun adventure to watch even if you didn’t participate.
Asked why he would aim for Mars and not the Moon, he argued that Mars had an enormous number of resources for establishing a self-sustaining civilization and growing it to something significant.
“Mars has a 24.5-hour rotational period and a CO2 atmosphere,” said Musk.
“It’s recently turned out that Martian soil is non-toxic, so you could grow Earth plants in Mars soil by heating it up and pressurizing it with CO2, inside a transparent, pressurized dome with a pump.
And Mars has over 2% nitrogen in its atmosphere, which means you can synthesize fertilizer as well.”
And he foresaw that regular flights between Earth and a Mars colony would bring currently unknown advances to the development of spaceflight.
“Once we’ve got a lot of travel between planets, that’s a great forcing function for the improvement of space transport technology.
I think we’ll see a rapid improvement that we just can’t envision today,” he said.