Updated: Friday, September 29, 2017, 7:52 AM
For years, Elon Musk has been focused on building a colony on Mars. It’s why he founded SpaceX in 2002, and it’s been the driving force behind it ever since.
But during a speech in Adelaide, Australia, Friday morning, Musk said he has dramatically expanded his already-outsize ambitions. In addition to helping create a city on the Red Planet, he said the next rocket he intends to build would also be capable of helping create a base camp on the moon – and flying people across the globe.
“It’s 2017, we should have a lunar base by now,” he said during a 40-minute speech at the International Astronautical Congress. “What the hell has been going on?”
In a surprise twist, he also said the massive rocket and spaceship, which would have more pressurized passenger space than an Airbus A380 airplane, could also fly passengers anywhere on Earth in less than an hour. Traveling at a maximum speed of more than 18,000 mph, a trip from New York to Shanghai, for example, would take 39 minutes, he said. New York to London could be done in 29 minutes.
“If we’re building this thing to go to the moon and Mars, why not go other places as well?” he said.
The speech was billed as an update to one he gave a year ago, in which he provided details for how SpaceX would make humanity a “multi-planet species.”
At the speech a year ago, Musk unveiled a behemoth of a rocket that was so ambitious and mind-bogglingly large that critics said it was detached from reality. Now, he and his team at SpaceX have done some editing, and Musk presented a revised plan early Friday to build a massive, but more reasonably sized, rocket that he calls the BFR, or Big [expletive] Rocket.
“I think we’ve figured out how to pay for it, this is very important,” he said.
The new fully reusable system includes a booster stage and a spaceship capable of carrying 100 people or so. It would be capable of flying astronauts and cargo on an array of missions, from across the globe, to the International Space Station in low Earth orbit and to the moon and Mars in deep space. It’d also be capable of launching satellites, he said, while effectively replacing all of the rockets and spacecraft SpaceX currently uses or is developing, making them redundant.
That would allow the company to put all of its resources into development of the BFR, he said.
Earlier this year, Musk announced that SpaceX would fly two private citizens in a trip around the moon by late next year. And he hinted at the moon base during a conference in July.
“If you want to get the public really fired up, I think we’ve got to have a base on the moon. That’d be pretty cool. And then going beyond there and getting people to Mars,” he said. “That’s the continuance of the dream of Apollo that I think people are really looking for.”
But Friday morning he made it clear that Mars is still the ultimate goal. During his talk, a chart showed that SpaceX planned to fly two cargo missions to Mars by 2022, a very ambitious timeline.
“That’s not a typo,” he said, but allowed: “It is aspirational.”
By 2024, he said the company could fly four more ships to Mars, two with human passengers and two more cargo-only ships.
SpaceX has upended the space industry, and Musk, with his celebrity, bravado and business acumen, has reignited interest in space. The company, which has won more than $4 billion in contracts from NASA, was the first commercial venture to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station; previously it had only been done by governments. It currently flies cargo there, and is also under contract from NASA to fly astronauts there, which could happen as early as next year.
But despite all its triumphs, the company still hasn’t flown a single human to space, not even to low Earth orbit, let alone Mars, which on average is 140 million miles from Earth (though the planets come to within 35 million miles of each other every 26 months).
The travel between cities on Earth would also face substantial hurdles. In addition to the technological challenges, there would have to be regulatory approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Musk’s speech comes two days after NASA announced that it had signed an agreement with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, to study exploration in the vicinity of the moon under a plan called the “Deep Space Gateway” that could, eventually, lead to a habitat near the moon.
Lockheed Martin also unveiled a plan for deep space exploration Thursday, updating its “Mars Base Camp” system, a massive orbiting laboratory. Now the company says it could also build a lander capable of touching down on Mars or the moon. The company said it could launch within a decade in conjunction with NASA.