Elon Musk wants to send humans to Mars in 2024. Can he do it?

SpaceX founder Elon Musk says that his company intends to send a robot mission to Mars in 2018, with a crewed mission six years later. 

This artist rendering provided by SpaceX shows a Dragon capsule sitting on the surface of Mars. The company's billionaire founder and chief executive officer Elon Musk says he plans to send a Dragon capsule to the Red Planet as early as 2018. Mr. Musk is dubbing his Mars spacecraft Red Dragon.

It's the stuff of science fiction dreams – and nightmares. Who in the world would take Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, up on his offer of a one-way trip to Mars, launching eight years from now?

When Mr. Musk announced on Wednesday at the Code Conference in in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., that his company "should be able to launch people in 2024, with arrival in 2025," experts lined up to say he could do it.

Musk plans to send an initial mission to Mars in 2018 on the Flying Dragon 2 rocket, then launch a rocket to Mars every 26 months.

The rocket "is intended to carry astronauts to the International Space Station," Musk said at the at the conference. "But we are going to send one to Mars in 2018."

If all goes well, the next phase of the plan is to launch the first humans in 2024.

"I would not recommend traveling to Mars in that," he said of the Flying Dragon 2, which is about the size of an SUV. The journey is estimated to take 18 months.

"It would be a long time to spend in an SUV," he said. "It also does not have the capability to get back to Earth. We put that in the fine print."

Still, the prospect of a one-way ticket to the Red Planet appeals to many. More than 200,000 people have contacted the Dutch non-profit Mars One, a reality-television project that has been widely dismissed as impracticable

Instead of Mars One's approach, which would send just two landers and six cargo ships prior to launch, many scientists and engineers recommend taking smaller steps.

"The idea of a continuous sequence of interconnected missions to Mars, each building upon the prior, is an excellent approach to Mars exploration that has been shown to be feasible by NASA over the past few decades," writes space technology expert Robert Braun of the Georgia Institute of Technology, in an email interview.

"This is also the manner in which SpaceX proceeded in developing a reusable first stage launch system, an accomplishment that five years ago many in the space sector would have said was beyond their reach," Professor Braun adds. "Given these examples, I believe the SpaceX strategy is both ambitious and well crafted."

Stephen Mackwell, director of the Lunar and Planetary Institute at the Universities Space Research Association in Houston, writes, "Elon Musk insists on pushing the boundaries, whether it is with space exploration, electric vehicles, or domestic solar power."

In his email to The Christian Science Monitor, he adds, "He is also a canny businessman, who looks beyond near-term profits to longer term sustainability."

He continues, "Innovators like Elon Musk are needed to enable sustain momentum towards long-term goals, such as human exploration of space."

He says he is optimistic, despite the large technical challenges for a human mission to Mars, including concerns about radiation exposure.

"Nonetheless, having watched as Elon Musk has defied the critics and pressed forward with his ambitious plans both on Earth and in space, I hesitate to suggest that he is being unrealistic," he says.

He adds that the billionaire innovator has "significant resources and a will to make this happen."

"Whether it will occur in 2024 or slip a few years is hard to predict, but SpaceX has momentum and is driving hard to achieve its vision for humans in space," he writes.

But why a one-way trip?

"Living off-Earth is going to be hard, just as living and working in the Antarctic is challenging to humans, but even more so," Mr. Mackwell says. "However, we have a thirst for expanding the frontiers, no matter how challenging, and there will always be people who want to push the boundaries."

Mackwell says that it "is possible, even likely, that people will die as we explore further out into space" but even so, "it is inevitable that we will eventually explore further into space, despite those risks. As is always true in exploration, the first steps are the hardest."

Is the private sector a better option than NASA for this type of exploration?

"It is unlikely that NASA would consider a mission without a high probability of success in returning the astronauts to Earth safely and in good health," Mackwell speculates. "Such a conservative risk tolerance is likely to slow NASA’s progress towards human missions to Mars."

Therefore, commercial entities such as SpaceX are more likely to accept the risks inherent in exploration than government space agencies.

Mackwell concludes, "So they may well be the pioneers, setting the stage for others to follow."

In 2010 President Obama called for the cancellation of the Constellation program, NASA's plan to build Orion capsules and Ares rockets to take humans back to the moon. Instead, the president instructed NASA to support private companies in picking up the torch, providing for-profit routes to and from the space station and low-Earth orbit.

"Over time, I am confident that the SpaceX team will be successful," writes Braun, the space technology professor. "In my view, this announcement is also a bold step for the U.S. space industry, a sector of our economy that is ripe with innovation and potential today."

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