Can SpaceX land people on Mars by 2027?
Last week I discussed Elon Musk, the Phenomenon, and the media blowback to his pushing to settle Mars. That has not died down and battle lines are being drawn, even though the Invasion of the Ukraine has taken front and center in the media. The question being asked is, “Should billionaires be spending large sums of money to go to space, when we have large unsolved problems here on Earth?” My answer would be that Trillions of dollars are being spent to solve problems here on Earth, why not spend a few billion (~ 1 %) of that in insure the long-term survival of humanity? The 1% is not going to markedly change the short-term outcome here on Earth but could be a game-changer for the long-term outcome. I will not go into the fact that a significant fraction of those Trillions of dollars are currently being siphoned off by our political process, and how that would be a better target for media scrutiny.
Today I want to talk about SpaceX’s proposed schedule and how realistic is it? Right now, NASA and SpaceX are talking about a human landing on the moon’s south pole (Artemis III) in 2025. Can SpaceX be ready for Artemis III by 2025? To meet this goal, they need to demonstrate that both the Super-Heavy first stage and the Starship second stage are operational (hopefully in 2022), that the Starship can be refueled repeatedly on orbit, and then that the Starship can be successfully modified to land on and takeoff from the moon. Based on my thirty years-experience on NASA-led space programs I would say this schedule is unrealistic, but this is SpaceX we’re talking about. Barring a significant failure in the basic design I believe Elon will get a successful orbital test of the overall Starship system in 2022. I am assuming the FAA does grant a permission to launch in late March. If that doesn’t happen, then the program needs to move to Cape Canaveral and all bets are off.
If the complete Two-Stage-to-Orbit (TSTO) system can be demonstrated in 2022, then it is reasonable to assume a tanker version and a lunar flyby version for the dearMoon project might be ready by 2024. The dearMoon project is a flight around the Moon with Starship, with its crew consisting of Japanese entrepreneur Yusaku Maezawa and eight others. This schedule requires human-rating Starship and producing technology breakthroughs in on-orbit propellant transfer and light-weight Thermal Protection Systems (TPS) for reentry from the moon. If NASA were involved this schedule would take about twice as long. Can SpaceX make these breakthroughs? I have to believe they have been addressing these problems for years as they are very critical to their basic plan to go to Mars. Therefore, I think they have solutions at hand and designs ready to implement. If that is the case, they should be able to conduct the dearMoon mission in 2024 and it is not a stretch to have a lunar lander version of Starship ready to launch in 2025. The problem of human-rating Starship is going to take numerous successful missions and that is the primary challenge. The NASA half of Artemis III requires the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Lockheed Martin Orion capsule plus propulsion module and there is no reason to believe they won’t be ready.
The major question I want to address is when is Starship going to land on Mars and when will the first people arrive? There are specific launch windows for efficient trajectories to Mars. For instance, the Perseverance Mars Rover was launched July 30, 2020, during a very effective launch window (see top of figure 1 below). We want to minimize both trajectory duration and total DV, so this limits our launch opportunities.
Figure 1 – Mars Launch Opportunities
As you can see there is a good opportunity for an uncrewed mission to Mars in October 2024 and if the dearMoon mission has successfully demonstrated on-orbit propellant transfer and reentry from lunar distance I would expect SpaceX to attempt a Mars launch then. I would expect it to be a pathfinder mission carrying an exploration rover and a fuel processing experiment capable of generating and storing small quantities of both liquid oxygen and liquid methane. This early mission would be one-way but serve as a shelter for future crewed missions.
The next launch opportunities are in the fall of 2026, and I would expect SpaceX to launch one or more preparatory Starships to Mars to lay the groundwork for a crewed mission in 2028/29. The goals for the 2026-launched Starships are to demonstrate propellant generation and transfer to an Earth-return Starship. That Starship would be loaded up with Mars samples collected by the earlier rover and return to Earth in early 2028. If that mission is successful then the first crewed mission to Mars could be launched as early as December 31, 2028. You heard it here first.
This schedule has little slack for equipment failures so don’t be surprised if it slips by a year or two. However, Elon is driven to get to Mars so he might just spend the money to meet this schedule. Stay tuned.
Thanks for Reading and Stay Safe,