The world knows him as Elon Musk — co-creator of PayPal, founder of Tesla motor sports, and CEO of SpaceX, the first private company in history to send a spacecraft to the International Space Station. But according to director Jon Favreau, Musk also served as an inspiration for billionaire-genius Tony Stark, of the Iron Man franchise.
What would you say if we told you that the real-life billionaire genius who inspired the characterization of Tony Stark wanted to put a human on Mars within 15 years?
There's been a lot of talk recently about putting a human on Mars, and not just in the wake of Curiosity's arrival there Monday morning. Last September, NASA unveiled the heavy lift rocket that Obama claims will deliver humans to the Red Planet by the 2030s, and the Mars One project is talking about sending humans on one-way trips to Mars starting in the 2020s.
But few people have been more vocal about putting a human on Mars (that includes the U.S. Government, by the way) than Elon Musk. And according to his most recent interview, he thinks his company, SpaceX, can do it — and soon. Like, very soon. As in, Curiosity-may-still-be-alive-and-roving-when-the-first-human-arrives soon:
"I'm confident at this point that it can be done," Musk told ABC's Nightline in an interview. "I think we'll be able to send, probably, the first people to Mars in roughly 12 to 15 years. That's my estimate."
If that sounds ambitious, that's because it is. We've heard a lot in recent weeks about how hard it is to get a robot to Mars, but getting a human there — and safely — is an entirely different ballgame. Humans, after all, require sustenance. They require space. They require a degree of psychological wellbeing, something that can be hard to come by when you're hurtling through the vacuum of space at 8,000 miles per hour, over 100-million miles from home, on an eight-month trip to a barren and unforgiving world.
Musk, photographed here, recognizes this, understands the inherent danger — but he also brings the confidence you'd expect from the inspiration behind Favreau's "billionaire genius playboy philanthropist"; asked in a recent L.A. Times interview if he would visit Mars himself, he said that despite the risks, he could see himself being first in line:
"The first flight would be risky; if I felt comfortable that the company's mission will continue, that my kids have grown up, then I'd be on the first mission."
Right now, Musk says that the biggest hurdle in making deep-space travel to Mars attainable is making it affordable — not just to fellow billionaires, but the common man. Or rather, the common man with half a million dollars to spare, which is to say not common at all.
"We know it's possible to get there," Musk said. "You would be moving to Mars, so a round trip ticket, it has to be no more than half a million dollars, so roughly, a middle-class house in California, and at this point, I would say, I know it's possible."
We're guardedly optimistic. Musk and his companies have a proven track record of getting stuff done. Just a few days ago, NASA selected SpaceX to return American astronauts to space, awarding the company a vote of confidence in the form of $440-million dollars. SpaceX's fleet of astronaut-carrying spacecrafts, designed for missions to and from the ISS, should launch in 2015 — how soon can SpaceX follow it up with a crewed missions to Mars?