A Sunday “Ask Me Anything” segment on Reddit by SpaceX CEO Founder and CEO Elon Musk filled in some of the details regarding the company’s recently announced Mars plans. It also demonstrated once again the unique nature of SpaceX’s path to its overriding goal and a big picture approach which is strongly reminiscent of the Apollo program.
First the details. Perhaps to everyone’s relief, Musk acknowledged that the name given to the massive booster and spaceship; “ITS” or “Interplanetary Transport System” “just isn’t working.” SpaceX is no stranger to stubbing its toe on naming issues. The Dragon 2.0 crew capsule, no romantic moniker itself, originally went by Dragon V2, an unfortunate reminder of modern rocketry’s darker elements.
While many of the questions submitted focused on specific elements of the ITS which were glossed over in the initial presentation Musk made in Mexico, others attempted to elicit even basic information on what the actual colony might look like. Perhaps logically, SpaceX has spent quite a bit more effort on the means for actually reaching (and returning from) Mars as indicated by the new information regarding the ITS, but the the overall picture is one of locally fabricated glass and composite domes sitting over a vast an ever growing network of subterranean tunnels excavated by mining “droids.” (Now there is a name that stuck.)
While the schedule is open-ended and the budgetary limitations are the exact opposite of the Apollo program’s “waste anything but time,” mentality, the approach being taken by Musk and SpaceX in aiming for Mars echoes NASA’s signature achievement in several important ways. Like NASA in 1961, there are an awful lot of details to be worked out, and several key technologies to be invented, refined or perfected in order to reach the end game.
One is finding a way to effectively seal the giant composite propellant tanks which will comprise the bulk of both the booster and the spaceship. SpaceX does not yet have a perfected method to accomplish this yet, but that is not stopping the show. According to Musk, SpaceX will soon be conducting a 2/3 pressure burst test of the massive engineering model liquid oxygen tank which the company revealed in September. Continuing a longstanding pattern of abusing ocean going vessels, the test will take place on a barge at sea.
There was no greater example of the “find a way” mindset than Musk’s simple response to one questioner who asked what technology for Mars the company has already mastered.
Musk: “Not sure that we’ve really mastered anything yet. Maybe starting with the engines… ”
That answer alone suggests that this time-frame will be very different from the “by the end of the decade” challenge which defined Apollo, but like its predecessor, it is the grand scope of the goal itself which may paradoxically lead to its achievement.
In setting its sights on what would be humanity’s single greatest accomplishment to date, the colonization of another planet, and in building a company large enough to house a small army of very bright people who all believe in the challenge, Musk and SpaceX have assembled a highly motivated problem solving machine which relishes the task at hand.
The “army” was vastly larger and its budget was comparatively unlimited, but much the same could be same could be said for NASA’s culture in the 1960’s. Still in its earliest years, no-one knows the outcome this time around either, but this generation’s “Apollo moment” may be a matter of knocking down the problems one at a time.