Half a million dollars is outrageous for a plane ticket anywhere on Earth, but SpaceX, the company signing with NASA to start making cargo runs to the International Space Station isn’t proposing plane trips anywhere on Earth. Their ambitious project hopes to start shipping people and cargo to Mars for less than one percent the cost to take a trip to the ISS. While it may sound outrageous, and still has a long way to go, this wouldn’t be the first time SpaceX made good on their surprising claims if they succeeded.
The idea of humans traveling to Mars is something that has been proposed for many years, particularly after the Apollo missions saw the first human footprints on the Moon. But after the first few steps toward a new vision of the future were taken, interest in the true exploration of space waned as problems with funding became more apparent decades later. But as time went on, the idea of space travel didn’t die, but rather changed hands from the publicly funded programs like NASA to more private ventures. These private companies, hoping to provide a service, had to find ways to make space travel both cost effective and profitable. And now it appears SpaceX may be on the cutting edge of the cost effective end of the spectrum. If their claims are true, then we may soon go from Mars being an impossibly distant destination to being within our own grasp at a fraction of the cost we thought it would have been.
One of the key components of keeping their costs low is the idea of using a rocket that remains a whole solitary unit throughout the whole launch process. Previously, rockets were discarded as they shot into space, meaning these components would either have to be discarded altogether or they would require expensive repairs as they were recovered from their fall back to the Earth.
But in order to take passengers to the Red Planet, we’re going to need far more cost effective measures than simply reusing the same rocket. And whatever the secret is to taking people to Mars on the cheap is, founder Elon Musk is keeping it under his hat – for the moment. The SpaceX founder announced to the BBC that he hopes to start offering round trip tickets to Mars to the public for half a million dollars in only a few decades, and plans on revealing the secret to his ambitious project either later in 2012 or by 2013. Will scientists uncover a secret that allows for interplanetary travel within our own lifetimes at a fraction of what it cost to send astronauts to the Moon?
Unfortunately, even at as low a cost as $500,000 per passenger, a trip to Mars and back will still be out of the price range of the rest of us. On the other hand, any market where prices can be significantly slashed as production becomes more popular may be able to be slashed still further given enough time and with enough public interest. Perhaps in our own lifetimes we could be looking at a trip all the way to Mars and back for a price comparable to a transatlantic voyage or a plane ticket around the world. Still, what will we find when we finally do touch down on the red planet’s surface?