You could go to Mars for just half a million bucks. That, at least, is the latest big proclamation from SpaceX entrepreneur and private spaceflight pioneer Elon Musk, who says a round-trip to Mars could be within reach of the "average" person in as little as 30 to 50 years.
Of course, let's clarify a couple of key points there right away. For the purposes of this discussion, the average person needs to have $500,000 available to spend on the trip. Considering the median household income in the United States is currently about $50,000 per year, Musk's definition of an average person may be a little different from, well, reality's.
That said, a trip to Mars isn't exactly a cruise vacation, and $500,000 would mean that even a decently well-off non-millionaire could, by making some serious financial sacrifices, actually afford the interplanetary trip of a lifetime. In this scenario, a trip to Mars might be pretty much the only luxury item a person buys in their entire lifetime, but I could totally see how that might be worth it.
Then there's the question of timing. Musk has previously said he wants to use SpaceX's Falcon 9 launcher and Dragon capsule - or at least their successor technologies - to put astronauts on Mars in twenty years. If that actually happens - and yes, that's about the biggest if I've ever used on my time writing for this site - then Musk says they could begin selling tickets for commercial flights to Mars almost immediately.
The price would start out at a figure much, much higher than $500,000, but Musk says it would take just ten to fifteen years for the system to be mature enough that the price could come down to that relatively low number. As such, the first $500,000 ticket might buy you a seat on a launch in around 2040, with say 2060 being the upper limit if this all actually happens but hits some snags and delays in the process.
Obviously, these are big, big proclamations, and SpaceX hasn't yet established a track record that even remotely guarantees that it's up to the task. Still, for anyone who is still a fan of human exploration of space - not to mention the still nascent field of space tourism - these sorts of ultra-lofty ambitions are a lot more exciting than whatever it is NASA is supposed to be doing these days about a crewed Mars mission. In an interview with the BBC, Musk offers some basic details on how regular commercial missions to Mars could work, with a more complete plan promised for late this year or early 2013:
"My vision is for a fully reusable rocket transport system between Earth and Mars that is able to re-fuel on Mars - this is very important - so you don't have to carry the return fuel when you go there. The whole system [must be] reusable - nothing is thrown away. That's very important because then you're just down to the cost of the propellant. We will probably unveil the overall strategy later this year in a little more detail, but I'm quite confident that it could work and that ultimately we could offer a round trip to Mars that the average person could afford - let's say the average person after they've made some savings. Land on Mars, a round-trip ticket - half a million dollars. It can be done."
According to Musk, the big key here is to make it so that a ticket pays just for the price of fuel, not for the entire spacecraft. SpaceX's whole stated plan right now is built towards creating completely reusable rockets, which would essentially make them the equivalent of airplanes that just happen to travel between Earth and Mars instead of New York and London. Indeed, looking at it that way, a $500,000 ticket to Mars is a steal - for a $750 round trip ticket between those two cities, you end up paying about ten cents per mile. Musk's ticket to Mars would only cost about you about a third of a cent for each mile traveled. Musk talks some more about this airplane analogy:
"If you had to buy a new plane every time you flew somewhere, it would be incredibly expensive. A 747 costs something like $300m and you'd need two of them to do a round trip. And yet people aren't paying half a billion dollars to fly from LA to London, and that's because that 747 can be used tens of thousands of times. We must get to the same position in rocketry. That's really what's critical; in order to get a two orders of magnitude improvement beyond Falcon Heavy (in other words to get down to the $10 or $20 per pound to orbit range), you have to have high levels of reusability. You need to be in the position where it is the cost of the fuel that actually matters and not the cost of building the rocket in the first place."
For more, check out BBC News. Image by SpaceX.