Half a century ago, people walked the moon and it looks like we’re going back. NASA plans to use the Space Launch System (SLS) and SpaceX Starship HLS to send astronauts to the surface of the moon in the next decade, but SpaceX’s Elon Musk has a more distant goal in his sights: Mars. He set up some very groundbreaking timelines for sending humans to Mars, but now it is doubling. In a recent interview, Musk said that SpaceX will land the first humans on Mars in ten years, and that’s a worst-case scenario. It could take half as long if everything goes perfectly in the upcoming Starship Tests.
Musk made that prediction on an episode of the Lex Fridman podcast. The full conversation, which you can see below, is over two and a half hours. In it, the two discuss Tesla’s self-driving technology, neural networks, memes and, of course, SpaceX. The conversation about Mars starts at about 27 minutes.
In the past, Musk has speculated that colonization efforts could begin this decade, with a fleet of spaceships gathering in orbit before leaving for Mars as the planets pass each other. Musk has moved away from that level of detail as Starship takes shape. While the vehicle did some really impressive things, it’s hard to imagine how it could send dozens of people to the red planet within a decade if it hasn’t yet reached orbit. When asked about the podcast’s timeline, Musk responded with a heavily pregnant hiatus. About 20 seconds later, he replied that ten years is out of reach. The best case, he said, was only five years.
Currently, NASA is hoping to land Artemis 3 on the moon in 2025, but that schedule looks suspicious due to delays in the SLS and upgraded spacesuits. SpaceX is also in the early stages of development of the Starship variant, which the crew will land on the lunar surface. If these issues add to Artemis’ further delay, Musk’s proposed schedule could bring humans to Mars In front the moon. That seems like a long way to go, but it would be an incredible feat and indictment against traditional government contractors if it did come to that.
Getting Starship to Mars is primarily a technical problem. The goal of this vehicle is to cut the cost per tonne of getting to Mars enough to allow a human presence. No amount of money is currently taking you to Mars, according to Musk. In the past, Musk has cited 2026 as the year he believes SpaceX will land its first Mars astronauts, but many things could go wrong by then. Starship still needs a lot of work, and the first stage Super Heavy booster has yet to fly at all. Whether or not Musk is right to get to Mars in five years’ time, SpaceX is in the best position to give it a try.