SpaceX founder Elon Musk thinks his private spaceflight company will have the capability to land humans on Mars within 12 years, assuming the availability of funding for the historic mission. Also, once SpaceX starts making steps toward this goal, the company could be floated on the stock market to boost investment for the Red Planet adventure.
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Musk, who also founded the electric car manufacturer Tesla, has always made his interplanetary intentions known, but this recent announcement is a reminder about how far the company has come and how far it is looking into the future.
During the CNBC interview, Musk said: "I'm hopeful that the first people could be taken to Mars in 10 to 12 years, I think it's certainly possible for that to occur. But the thing that matters long term is to have a self-sustaining city on Mars, to make life multiplanetary."
Musk also highlighted NASA's role in SpaceX's success, pointing out that without the U.S. space agency's pioneering work that SpaceX wouldn't be where it is today. NASA provided funding to help develop SpaceX's Falcon rocket series and Dragon space capsule, eventually awarding the company a $1.6 billion contract to help resupply the International Space Station.
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SpaceX is now competing for the next round of NASA contracts that will be awarded to a private U.S. spaceflight company for commercial crew launches to the space station. Musk unveiled the crewed version of the Dragon capsule - dubbed the Dragon "V2″ (version 2) - at the company's headquarters in Hawthorn, Calif., last month.
The Dragon V2 will be considered in a 3-way competition to acquire NASA contracts to fly astronauts to the space station (and beyond), ending the U.S. dependence on the Russian Soyuz launch vehicle to get astronauts into space after the Space Shuttle fleet was retired in 2011. Aerospace giant Boeing and spaceflight company Sierra Nevada also have potential "space taxis" in the running, but NASA cannot fund them all.
Should SpaceX not win the commercial crew contract, however, Musk is still confident that his ultimate Mars dream can be fulfilled.
"It's possible that we may not win the commercial crew contract. ... We'll do our best to continue on our own, with our own money," he said. "We would not be where we are today without the help of NASA."
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SpaceX is hoping to see the maiden flight of the powerful Falcon Heavy rocket within the next year, a booster that could launch heavy components for a Mars mission into space.
A potential route to funding a Mars mission could come if SpaceX went public and floated on the stock market. But with investors comes pressure for the company to be constantly growing and being profitable, momentum that can be difficult to maintain over a multi-year effort toward the one Mars goal.
"We need to get where things a steady and predictable," Musk said. "Maybe we're close to developing the Mars vehicle, or ideally we've flown it a few times, then I think going public would make more sense."
While commenting on Tesla's pioneering work into driving down the cost of electric cars, Musk joked that a mission to Mars may be an easier task than driving down the cost of electric car batteries to less than $5000. He was, however, optimistic that Tesla could start producing a "compelling" mass-market electric car within the next 3 years.
Sources: NBC, The Register