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Elon Musk’s latest Mars launch has potential

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Elon Musk's latest Mars launch has potential

Elon Musk has been speaking publicly about his broad vision for Mars colonization for almost eight years. coming out with a speech in Guadalajara, Mexico, in September 2016.

This weekend, at SpaceX’s Starbase facility in south Texas, Musk once again took command of his cause of “making life multiplanetary.” Addressing employees at the company’s Starship factory location, Musk talked about the “high urgency” necessary to extend the “light of consciousness” beyond Earth. This is not because humanity’s home planet is a lost cause or should not be preserved. Rather, Musk said, he doesn’t want humanity to remain a single-planet civilization that will inevitably face some species-ending calamity.

This is all pretty familiar territory for spaceflight enthusiasts and Musk watchers. But over the past eight years he has become an increasingly controversial and polarizing figure. Based on his demeanor, many people will dismiss Musk’s comments about Mars as those of a megalomaniac. However, at least as far as space flight is concerned, that would be a mistake. Musk’s multiplanetary ambitions today are more credible because SpaceX has taken steps to do what he said the company would do.

SpaceX has real hardware today and has completed three test flights. A fourth is possible next month.

“It’s surreal, but it’s real,” Musk said this weekend, describing the bold Mars vision.

The propeller and the boat

As part of his 45-minute speech, Musk talked about Starship’s booster, upper stage, and the company’s plans to ultimately deliver millions of tons of cargo to Mars for a self-sustaining civilization.

If thousands of launches seem impossible, Musk noted that SpaceX has completed 327 successful Falcon launches and that 80 percent of them have involved spent boosters. This year, he said, SpaceX will launch about 90 percent of the mass sent into orbit from the planet. China will release about 6 percent, he added, and the rest of the world will account for the other 4 percent.

This type of performance has given Musk confidence that reusability can be achieved with the Super Heavy propellant that powers Starship. On the vehicle’s next test flight, possibly in May, the company will attempt to land the booster on a virtual tower in the Gulf of Mexico. If that landing is accurate enough, SpaceX will try to snag the booster on the fifth test flight with the toothpick-like mechanisms on Starship’s massive launch tower.

“That’s very much a success-oriented timeline, but it’s within the realm of possibility,” Musk said. With multiple test flights this year, Musk said the chances of catching the booster with the launch tower this year are 80 to 90 percent.

It will take longer to land and begin reusing Starship’s upper stage, which must survive fiery re-entry through Earth’s atmosphere. This vehicle broke up and burned during its attempt to return through the atmosphere during a flight test in March. On the next flight, Musk said, the goal of Starship’s upper stage is to survive this warming and make a controlled landing in the ocean. Sometime this year, he hopes SpaceX will achieve this milestone and then begin landing Starships in Texas next year.

Building more, building bigger

SpaceX is also building additional ground infrastructure and making improvements to the Starship design.

Musk said the company will build a second launch tower in Texas to facilitate additional development test flights. And by the end of 2025 it aims to have two Starship launch towers in Florida to begin supporting operational launches. Initially, they are likely to support the Artemis lunar landing missions for NASA.

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