SpaceX Just Held a Secret Meeting to Solve The Huge Problems With Mars Space Travel

SpaceX, the aerospace company founded by Elon Musk, held a hush-hush conference in Colorado this week to formulate a plan for landing people on Mars and building an outpost.

The inaugural ‘Mars Workshop’, first reported by Eric Berger at Ars Technica, happened Tuesday and Wednesday in Boulder, Colorado.

SpaceX reportedly sent invitations to about 60 scientists and engineers, asking them not to publicize the event or their attendance at the workshop.

Leaders of NASA’s Mars exploration program reportedly attended, but the agency did not answer Business Insider’s questions about who from its staff was there.

Workshop attendees were asked to participate in “active discussions regarding what will be needed to make such missions happen,” according to Ars Technica.

According to Ars Technica, the workshop may be “the first meeting of such magnitude” in SpaceX’s quest to land humans on and ultimately colonize the red planet. (Though a SpaceX representative told Business Insider in an email, “we regularly meet with a variety of experts concerning our missions to Mars.”)

It’s about time for these discussions, especially if Musk wants to meet his “aspirational” timeline to launch the first human crew toward Mars in the mid-2020s.

“We already have the technology to build rockets and land vehicles on Mars. We’ve been doing that for decades,” D. Marshall Porterfield, the former director of NASA’s Space Life and Physical Sciences Division, told Business Insider.

“The main hindrance is the human factor. If you really are going to land a person on Mars, you have to feed them, keep them healthy, and build them habitats.”

What we know about SpaceX’s Mars mission plans

Musk launched SpaceX in 2002 in part because he was frustrated that NASA didn’t have any actionable plan to land people on Mars.

Ever since, his company has been building larger and more cost-effective rockets, accruing staff and cash, and working toward the ultimate goal of colonizing Mars.

Musk first presented an outline for reaching Mars in September 2016, then elaborated on it in October 2017. The plan called for an enormous, fully reusable spaceflight system called the Big Falcon Rocket, or BFR.

The 35-story-tall system would have two main parts – a giant spaceship atop a gargantuan booster – and be able to carry up to 100 people to Mars.

SpaceX plans to launch an uncrewed mission to Mars in 2022, followed by the first human explorers in 2024 – a timeline Musk said he felt “pretty optimistic” about at the 2018 South by Southwest festival. He also elaborated on the idea of setting up a permanent Martian colony.

“It will start off building just the most elementary infrastructure, just a base to create some propellant, a power station, blast domes in which to grow crops – all of the sorts of fundamentals without which you cannot survive,” Musk said.

“And then really there’s going to be an explosion of entrepreneurial opportunity because Mars will need everything from iron foundries to pizza joints. I think Mars should really have great bars: the Mars Bar.”

Long before trying to colonize Mars, SpaceX will need to pull off its first landings there. Each will require about half a dozen BFR flights to get a spaceship into low-Earth orbit and refuel it.

Construction of a prototype spaceship for the BFR system is now underway and maybe test-launched as soon as mid-2019. Even if that effort goes well, SpaceX will still need to secure scores of durable supplies and high-tech equipment – and formulate well-laid plans to use it all.

Workshops with top experts in the spaceflight world could help SpaceX work toward those goals.

Why SpaceX needs a great plan – and likely lots of help – to reach the red planet

To pull off its initial Mars plans and seed an off-world economy, SpaceX will likely need tens of billions or hundreds of billions of dollars.

SpaceX was awarded about US$3 billion in US government awards and contracts to develop its Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon spaceship, with much of that spent to meet NASA’s exacting specifications for flying astronauts.

But a Mars mission is far more ambitious – and dangerous.

Musk has not been shy about the high risk of failure. In 2016 he said “the likelihood of death is very high” for the first Mars missions, and for that reason, he probably wouldn’t fly there himself.

“Being unafraid to fail has really been what’s helped SpaceX advance so quickly,” Steve Nutt, an aerospace and mechanical engineer at the University of Southern California, told Business Insider.

“Historically, engineers have learned more from their failures than they have their successes. By far.”

Still, multilateral support from space agencies and aerospace companies won’t come easy; SpaceX will need a very detailed proposal that doesn’t sound like a suicide mission.

How, exactly, Mars missions would play out and which technologies would be used to keep people alive on the red planet have yet to be described publicly by the company or shared with Business Insider. (We’ve asked SpaceX and Musk, to no avail.)

“They seem to have tackled a huge aspect of it – the rockets, the propulsion, the landing,” Ray Wheeler, an advanced life support researcher at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center who wasn’t invited to SpaceX’s Mars workshop, told Business Insider.

“But having an efficient and appropriate habitat for the human, reliable life-support systems, the right spacesuits, and so on? That all demonstrates the complexity of this whole idea.”

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