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Guadalajara 2016: When Elon Musk introduces the interplanetary human species project

A landmark “promise”

SpaceX in September 2016 is not doing well. The company suffered its second failure in two years, with an explosion during a test at the launch site that also destroyed part of the LC-40 launch pad at Cape Canaveral. The Falcon 9 launcher is on the ground, NASA is worried, and the very large Falcon Heavy rocket has been delayed until at least 2017. Competitors are not shy about pointing out that their launchers are more reliable, and especially the company and its founder’s dreams of reusing launchers will take a few more years and will be very expensive… if they don’t knock them down. of customers. 27 days after the last disaster, Elon Musk will be speaking at Space High Mass, the most anticipated conference of the IAC, which will take place in Guadalajara, Mexico in 2016. The vast majority of observers are waiting for SpaceX boss to reveal Falcon 9, failure investigation, reuse tests…

In the audience (with record attendance), there were many “fans” and visitors, because rumor has it Elon Musk should also talk about his potential long-term project: Mars. But even they are surprised when, after a brief introduction by Jean-Yves Le Gall, he picks up the microphone and starts speaking directly, wanting to “make humans a multi-planetary species”. The presentation will last an hour in front of a half bewildered, half enthralled audience. Because if the founder of SpaceX has mentioned Mars as the reason for SpaceX’s existence, this time he enters a new dimension.

Elon Musk Mars Terraformée © SpaceX

Here he calmly explains that he wants human civilization to be exported to Mars to face a future earthly disaster. That would require roughly a million inhabitants, and that’s the goal SpaceX is leading. And so arguing that for at least 40 years, regular round trips will require a massive (about a thousand) fully reusable ship that will reach Mars in a 2-month voyage.

“I have a Dream”

In all seriousness, he describes his future vehicle, which will carry at least 100 people per trip, shows the first test of the Raptor methane engine, talks about the Red Dragon project and briefly about the possibility of targeting any solid surface of our Sun. System. As quickly as possible: One slide remains for posterity with a development agenda showing the ITS (Interplanetary Transport Ship) first flights to Mars in 2022… But Elon Musk isn’t keen on making a date commitment. He even says: “If all goes well, we could get there [on Mars] in ten years, but I’m not counting too many” while arguing that this is its top priority, as well as that of the company. It risks going bankrupt without being successful.
Elon Musk is not John Kennedy and the Guadalajara speech is not Rice’s speech. However, at that time, it was understood in a very different way, especially according to the audience. A significant number of fans seem immediately convinced that this is a major discovery and that ITS will shape up to become the benchmark for a new space age (it must be said that the presentation included a vision of a $200,000 ticket to Mars…). For others, reactions vary.

ITS SpaceX BFR Starship 2016 © SpaceX

In the industry, for example, most gamers are sweeping the rhetoric to remember that SpaceX was then grounded, and it’s been almost 6 years since Elon Musk promised to commission Falcon Heavy without delivering it. So Mars… Some of the press covers the elements of the presentation, especially the most concrete. Because frankly, it’s unrealistic to conjure up the thousands of interplanetary transports and the half-red, half-green planet Mars (terraforming, because why not) behind the billionaire boss.

Presentation to the onslaught of reality

It’s unrealistic… But in the end, if the presentation of Guadalajara stuck in people’s minds, it’s because it really set the tone. Especially not for Elon Musk, who has not had a problem with projects in the last 5 years, but actually for SpaceX. After the development of the latest versions of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy was completed in 2018, the company, which became one of the three largest global companies in the space industry (around 9,500 employees) with its recruitment, has directed its huge resources towards these development efforts. of ITS. Finally, the BFR, or rather the duo now called Starship and Super

Azim Navcam Mars 1 © NASA / JPL-Caltech / E.  Botlander

Indeed, between 2016 and 2019-2020 the design changes as fast as the name, number of engines, powers, mass available for the load or materials used. This suggests that the aplomb for which the solution was proposed during the presentation in Mexico was somewhat exaggerated: the project was at the drawing board stage at the time. However, the real issue is not in the design of Starship today, but in the “mission” that Elon Musk gives to his teams. This hasn’t really changed.

not for today

Depending on who you talk to, it’s possible to see the glass half empty or half full in Elon Musk’s hopeful speech. Because yes, there are many elements that have since been cast aside or even forgotten. Like the Red Dragon program, which aims to send next-generation Dragon capsules (with emergency engines located in the module’s walls) adapted for a propellant landing to the red planet for on-site testing of technologies. The “major advances” in carbon composite materials necessary for Starship to be fully reusable have not materialized, and the company shifted its focus in early 2018, shifting all its efforts to an alloy of steel and tile. thermal.

Yıldız gemisi © SpaceX

After listening to the conference, a lot has changed, except SpaceX has put all of its resources (and more) on the table. Those five years have gone through a major evolution on the subject: There aren’t many people to chuckle anymore that this is a billionaire’s whim that will never happen. In any case, not the entire conversation. For some, it’s still a game of poker or “the promise of more.” However, as time goes on, the investments get heavier. Mars is still very, very, very far away. Perhaps unattainable at the rates suggested by Elon Musk. But the first trial and error had already outstripped them.
Of course, the manned journey to Mars is as challenging today as it was in 2016, and that’s not about to change. Radiation, the duration of space travel, the living conditions there and the use of resources, the dire human tragedies that can be expected, and even and many scientists and experts warn that the challenge will expand so much that it may be better to use resources to do something more constructive instead.

Yet today the huge ship promoted by Elon Musk has come true. It “did not reduce the cost of the trip to Mars by 5 million percent,” and also still has not flown into orbit. But every day, thousands of engineers, technicians and workers are working on it and making progress. SpaceX borrows billions of dollars each year to support Starship, Elon Musk said he’s ready to spend his fortune on it, and if the Starlink constellation’s revenues exceed deployment costs, it will flow to Starship and its Mars adventure. .
Despite the video in the presentation, final versions of the (continuously improved) Raptor engine are not yet available… but they have already tested them and the power is there.

The promises, promises or reality of the decade?

This narrative, which does not have to be adhered to (it’s also quite possible that it was designed as a very long-term purpose just to support the company’s business purpose) was not particularly secret before 2016. In the Guadalajara scene formulated, explained and detailed by Elon Musk. This vision has already reshaped the goals of the entire company, one of the strongest in the industry. In addition, he had the support of public authorities with lunar missions for NASA.

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