Elon Musk Now Plans to Send People to Mars in Seven Years

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Dragon spacecraft onboard, launches from the Kennedy Space Center on June 3.

Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images

Elon Musk is once again predicting that the launch of his Mars rocket is just around the corner—and so is a rocket to replace the LAX–JFK red eye. Speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, early Friday, the SpaceX (and Tesla) CEO shared the latest on the ambitious plans of his space-travel startup. By 2022, Musk hopes to send the first noncrewed cargo ships to Mars. By 2024, he said, humans could become a multiplanetary species, and leave Earth to begin making a home on the red planet. As for shorter trips, Musk also described plans to use rocket ships for transporting people across the far reaches of Earth, or even single continents. A SpaceX trip from Los Angeles to New York City, he predicted, could take just 25 minutes.

How we’ll get from here to there involves what Musk calls the Interplanetary Transport System, and if it’s ever built, it will be huge. Measuring about 30 feet wide and 157 feet tall, it’s supposed to be able to ferry about 100 people with 40 cabins (they could fit more, Musk said, but then the three-month journey to Mars would be less comfortable). The specs Musk showed off actually portrayed a scaled-down version of the space shuttle Musk proposed last year, when he said it would be 40 feet in diameter. Still, even on the smaller model, the cargo bay alone is eight stories high. It would be the largest rocket ever built, which is why Musk  calls it the BFR—for “big fucking rocket.”

Musk said that the ITS—or BFR, or whatever three letters will describe it next week—is meant to replace SpaceX’s other rockets, though the company plans to redirect resources from its Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy, and Dragon models. Reusing rockets is core to SpaceX’s mission of bringing down the cost of space travel. Rockets are typically too damaged after launching to be used again, and building a new rocket can cost hundreds of millions of dollars.

Last year, at the same conference, Musk laid out his plan for Mars colonization. Back then, he estimated it would cost about $10 billion for a crew of 12 astronauts. But, he figured, if 1 million people signed up, the cost could fall to a mere $200,000 per traveler, which at the time he compared to the price of a house. The slide for his projected financials was a joke—it listed “steal underpants” for the first step, followed by steps like launching satellites and a Kickstarter—and finally profit. Earlier this week, Musk clarified on Twitter that it wasn’t a strong business plan after all.

Screenshot from Musk’s 2016 presentation 

With the new rocket, Musk said Friday, SpaceX will be able to land on the moon and return to Earth. Musk showed an illustration of a potential SpaceX lunar base. Musk says SpaceX will still be able to service the International Space Station with the new design, too, as it has been doing since 2012.

To get to Mars and back, though, SpaceX will have to produce fuel on the planet, and Musk said that would require an array of solar panels and the extraction of water from Mars. Setting up the propellant plant would likely be the goal of the initial crew, according to Musk. But eventually, as more and more crews come and go, Musk envisions an entire city for humans on Mars that can continue to grow as colonization continues.

Screenshot of a colony on Mars rom Musk’s 2017 presentation. 

Already SpaceX has had 10 successful launches and landings this year with its Falcon 9 rocket. Not every rocket SpaceX has launched was meant to land, though, and in total the company has successfully completed 13 missions this year, the most SpaceX has done in a single year.

OK, but what about that commuter rocket? Musk demonstrated the concept in a short video of passengers taking a ferry to a landing pad ship in the ocean before boarding a rocket. They then took off into outer space before landing across the globe in their final destination in under an hour. By SpaceX’s calculations, a trip from Los Angeles to New York City via a massive rocket ship leaving Earth’s atmosphere would take about 25 minutes. To travel from New York City to Shanghai would take about 39 minutes. Tokyo to Delhi would take 30 minutes. Musk says his rocket ship could go anywhere on Earth in less than an hour. That’s impressive, considering right currently takes about 30 to 50 minutes to get from much of Brooklyn to Manhattan.

There are reasons to be skeptical of Musk’s plan for SpaceX’s Mars colonization, or least of its deadline. For one, the biggest rocket on Earth has a lot of moving parts, and if one thing goes wrong it has the potential to set SpaceX’s ambitious timeline back for months. In September last year, when a Falcon 9 exploded on its launch pad in Cape Canaveral, Florida, SpaceX didn’t launch another rocket for four months, putting its launches for the rest of 2016 on hold while it investigated the failure.

Mistakes of this magnitude aren’t cheap, either. Another accident in 2015, when a rocket disintegrated minutes after takeoff, cost NASA around $112 million in cargo. SpaceX lost roughly $260 million in that mission, so it’s a good thing that Musk was able to raise another $350 million in new financing this year—that could cover a single rocket failure. Then again, valued at $21 billion, SpaceX is one of the most valuable private companies in the world. And Musk does lead Tesla, his electric car company, which is now worth more than Ford and GM. So there’s reason to have faith that Musk will deliver with SpaceX too, which has already blasted more rockets into space this year than any other country or space travel company on the planet.

After his talk, Musk posted on Instagram that the cost per seat on a rocket ship should cost about the same as a full fare in an airplane, but he didn’t say when we might be able to cruise through space to travel the globe. Apparently taking the extraplanetary route means the rocket doesn’t face any friction, since there’s no weather and no atmosphere in space, which makes for a fast flight. “If we’re building this thing to go to the moon and Mars,” Musk asked at the end of his presentation, “then why not build it to go to other places on Earth, too?”