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Elon Musk is rushing to beat NASA to Mars

Regardless of any offhand comments President Trump may have made suggesting his administration wants NASA to fast-track a manned mission to Mars — "We want to try and do that during my first term or, at worst, during my second term," he said during a conversation with astronauts last month — technological and fiscal realities suggest that NASA won't be fielding such a mission any time in the foreseeable future. But if SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has his way, SpaceX could conceivably launch a robotic mission to Mars in 2020 followed by a crewed mission as soon as 2024, before a theoretical second Trump term expires. And that is much sooner than NASA's goal of sending humans to Mars by the 2030s. While experts agree that such an ambitious mission in such a short timeframe is unlikely, Musk and SpaceX have defied consensus before. Given the somewhat unlikely rapport that's developed between the Tesla and SpaceX founder and President Trump — Musk made two trips to Trump Tower preinauguration, where both Mars and public-private partnerships were reportedly discussed — the idea that SpaceX might be the first to put human footprints on Mars seems less remote than it did a year ago. So why is Elon Musk so eager to colonize the Red Planet? After all, at 95 percent carbon dioxide, its atmosphere is inhospitable to life, and its harsh climate nearly uninhabitable for humans. Getting there is also a dangerous months-long spaceflight gambit. Nonetheless, Musk has said it's essential to become an interplanetary species lest humans face eventual extinction on Earth, and he believes his company can lead the way off our planet. Musk's ultimate vision is a Martian city of thousands if not millions of people — one that will require thousands of round-trips and 40 to 100 years to realize. But he's determined to make this vision a reality, first by sending a Dragon 2 capsule to Mars in 2020 — to test out landing procedures, scout locations for future landings and try out technologies needed to land larger, heavier equipment on the Martian surface — and then again every 27 months as SpaceX transports tons of equipment to the Martian surface. But this vision also presents a unique set of challenges. Before SpaceX can land its first manned mission on the Red Planet, engineers need to develop the company's planned Interplanetary Transport System, a two-part vehicle combining the most powerful rocket ever built, and a massive spacecraft designed to carry at least 100 people to Mars per flight. After hauling the spaceship into Earth orbit, the ITS rocket will return to Earth, where it or another rocket will then carry a fuel tanker into orbit to rendezvous with and fuel up the orbiting spaceship (which will initially launch with very little fuel on board so it can carry more people and cargo). Once fueled, the spaceship will light its own thrusters — nine of the Raptor engines SpaceX successfully test-fired for the first time in September — and blast off toward Mars. Musk expects the ITS spaceship to make the trip in just 80 days, far shy of the six to nine months it currently takes spacecraft to travel to Mars. After making a retro-rocket-assisted soft landing on the Martian surface, this crew would begin constructing habitats and a propellant plant that would allow for the refueling of spacecraft to launch back to Earth, closing the transportation loop and allowing for regular transit to and from the Martian surface aboard the reusable spacecraft. That's the larger idea, anyhow — one that will require SpaceX to make huge strides in propulsion, life support, rocket design, retro-propulsion (for landing) and other technologies. Regardless of those myriad challenges, Musk continues to talk of sending at least a first, exploratory crewed mission to Mars within the next decade. "People can smirk," says Marco Caceres, senior analyst and director of space studies at aerospace consultancy Teal Group. "But it's hard to argue with one success after another."

Read More: CNBC.com

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