Space may be the final frontier, but Mars should be the next one.
At a spaceflight propulsion conference held by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics on Tuesday, Elon Musk -- the billionaire founder of PayPal and the man behind leading private spaceflight company SpaceX -- spoke about just how to get humanity there.
"Are we on the path to becoming a multi-planet species or not?" Musk asked the crowd at the event. "If we're not, it's really not that exciting after all."
The challenge to getting to Mars is transporting significant tons of cargo and people, Musk noted, a task that will require what he described as a rapidly and fully reusable rocket.
"There's a reason no one has invented a fully reusable rocket before," Musk explained. "It's super-damn hard."
Still, the inventor has a plan for interplanetary travel, and a name for it: Falcon.
Musk described several of the recent advances made by his company's Falcon 9 rockets, which were tested successfully for the first time June 4, 2010. The rocket is designed to generate 3.8 million pounds (1,700 metric tons) of thrust -- making it easily capable of carrying satellites, cargo, and even humans to other planets, he said.
"It's got potential as a generalized science delivery platform for other planets in the solar system," Musk noted.
While he believes there will be a single vehicle for transporting humans to the Red Planet and back -- at least at first -- a Mars base could dramatically change the game.
"As soon as you've got a base on Mars, you've got a 'forcing function' for improving the transportation capability," he noted.
The company did not explain prior to the 4 p.m. EST speech what Musk would discuss, other than referencing the title of his brief speech: "Getting to Mars." But the SpaceX founder has often publicly stated his desire to have humans on Mars within 20 years.
According to a story at Space.com, NASA has been tentatively discussing work with the company and its Dragon capsule on an exploratory mission to Mars, a so-called "Red Dragon" mission.
In that mission, NASA's science hardware would fly to the Red Planet aboard SpaceX's Dragon capsule, which the company is developing to ferry cargo and astronauts to and from the International Space Station, Space.com reported.
The Dragon capsule is designed to work in concert with the company's multistage Falcon 9 rocket, either on short range resupply trips to the International Space Station or on longer range missions to other planets.
This so-called "Red Dragon" mission, which could be ready to launch by 2018, would carry a cost of about $400 million or less. And the Dragon capsule clearly fits Musk's description of "rapidly and fully reusable."
At the AIAA speech, Musk also teased a new engine development -- needed to bring cargo and people to Mars, he noted -- which he promised to unveil later this year.