Musk Explains Starship Failure, Forecasts Humans on Mars in Eight Years

Musk Explains Starship Failure, Forecasts Humans on Mars in Eight Years

SpaceX’s Elon Musk told company employees on Friday that the achievements they made last year are leading to his goal of establishing human settlements on Mars. He forecasts the first people will land there eight years from now. Well known for his overly optimistic timelines, Musk’s comments came just days after NASA slipped the date for U.S. astronauts to return to the Moon’s surface by a year in part because of delays in SpaceX’s development of the Human Landing System needed to take them down and back.

In an “all hands” gathering at SpaceX’s Starbase in Boca Chica, TX, Musk spent an hour congratulating the workforce on the company’s progress in 2023 and projected the path to the future. The video is posted on X, which he also owns.

Musk has made clear for years that his goal is making humanity a multi-planet species with millions of people living on Mars to ensure humans will survive if anything goes awry here on Earth. His enthusiasm and commitment to that goal were on full display.

Noting it has been eight years since SpaceX first successfully landed a Falcon 9 first stage, he contemplated what could happen in the next eight years.

“It’s incredible how much has happened in eight years. So I wonder what will things be like eight years from now? Hopefully, I think we will have landed on Mars. And I think we will have sent people to the Moon and maybe if we get lucky we will send people to Mars.”

Saying civilization is “fragile” and not on an “inevitable upward trajectory,” the “key test” is whether “we become a self-sustaining multi-planet civilization.”

“If we did become a multi-planet civilization we may go to other star systems and discover many long-dead one-planet civilizations. And we don’t want to be one of them.”

Mars is extremely inhospitable to human life with no breathable air, no drinkable water, and temperatures much colder than on Earth. Musk called it a “fixer upper” and acknowledged that creating a self-sustaining civilization that is not dependent on resupply ships from Earth will require an enormous number of launches of massive tonnage of material.

That’s why he’s developing Starship.

For now, Starship will take satellites to Earth orbit and serve as a Human Landing System (HLS) for NASA’s Artemis program. SpaceX also already has contracts with several billionaires to fly them and their companions to Earth orbit or around the Moon on three different Starship flights — American Jared Isaacman on the first crewed Starship flight to Earth orbit, Japan’s Yusaku Maezawa on the first crewed Starship flight around the Moon, and American Dennis Tito and his Japanese-born wife Akiko Tito on a separate trip around the Moon.

The timing of those flights is unclear. In 2018, Maezawa was the first to buy a Starship flight and the date was set for 2023, but that obviously did not happen. Starship did make its debut last year with two test flights in April and November, but neither reached orbit. The November flight came close, though.

Musk revealed during his speech that the November launch failed because they vented liquid oxygen and that led to a fire and an explosion. They would not have vented the liquid oxygen if a payload had been aboard so “ironically if it had a payload, it would have reached orbit.” Although the mission ultimately failed, SpaceX did successfully demonstrate liftoff without destroying the launch pad as they did the first time, and “hot staging” where the second stage began firing while it was still attached to the first stage. That design change was developed and implemented in just seven months between the first and second test flights.

These Starship test flights will not actually go into orbit, but travel about three-quarters of the way around the globe and splash down in the ocean near Hawaii, but for convenience many refer to it as an orbital flight anyway. At a NASA media teleconference last week about the Artemis delays, SpaceX Vice President for Government and Customer Relations Jessica Jensen said they hope to launch the next Starship test flight in February if they get their FAA license.

SpaceX’s most remarkable achievement in 2023 perhaps was the sheer number of launches, a total of 98: the two Starship test flights plus 96 Falcons (91 of the Falcon 9, five of the Falcon Heavy). Musk calculated that SpaceX delivered 80 percent of the total mass to orbit launched worldwide in 2023.

SpaceX mass to orbit compared to the rest of the world. Screengrab from Elon Musk presentation to SpaceX employees, January 12, 2024 (posted on X).

Almost all of the Falcon first stages were recovered, landing either on autonomous drone ships at sea or back on land. They are reused, and the fleet leader flew 19 times before it was destroyed after landing when it fell over on the drone ship during the trip back to shore during rough seas. Musk said they’ve set a new goal of 40 flights per booster. They also recover and reuse the payload fairings.

Earlier SpaceX was forecasting 144 launches in 2024, 12 per month, but Musk said Friday the goal is 150. The cadence and rapid turnaround of launch pads is part of his long term plan for launching a million tons of mass to Earth orbit a year to establish that civilization on Mars.

“Now these numbers [mass to orbit in 2023] will actually look very small in the future. In order to build a city on Mars we’ll need to be kind of in the million tons to orbit range. Maybe a little higher, ideally a little higher, but I sort of just try to get things to the right order of magnitude. … That’ll get you roughly 200,000 tons to the surface of Mars.”

In the nearer term, SpaceX is busy launching satellites to Earth orbit, including its own Starlink Internet broadband system. More than 5,000 have been launched already. A new, larger version of the satellites will begin launching once Starship is available. Musk cautioned that as great as Starlink is at providing Internet connectivity to remote parts of the world, it is not competitive with terrestrial systems in high density population centers.

SpaceX also is busy right now supporting NASA with crew and cargo launches to the International Space Station using Cargo Dragon and Crew Dragon capsules launched by Falcon 9 as well as developing the Starship Human Landing System (HLS) for the Artemis program. As he often does, he thanked NASA for having confidence in SpaceX.

“We’re very proud to be part of the Artemis program and incredibly grateful to NASA for their support and for trusting us to take astronauts to orbit, to take cargo to the space station and to be an integral part of getting astronauts back to the Moon.”

In addition to building a civilization on Mars, he wants to build a Moon base and call it Moonbase Alpha in tribute to the 1970s television show Space 1999.  But first he needs to get Starship HLS built. Last week NASA officials cited delays in its development as one of the reasons the Artemis III mission has slipped from 2025 to 2026, although there are other issues as well. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on Artemis tomorrow morning to find out more about the causes of the delay and the cost implications.

Illustration of SpaceX’s Human Landing System on the lunar surface. Note the astronauts at the base of the lander for scale. Credit: SpaceX

Crew Dragon also launches non-NASA astronauts to space on private astronaut missions.  Since the first crewed flight in 2020, Dragon has taken 42 people to space and brought them back safely.

Musk said the Crew Dragons have now spent more time in orbit and more time at the ISS than NASA’s space shuttle did during its 30-year history. The space shuttle was not a capsule like Crew Dragon and not designed for long-durations in orbit. The longest flight was 18 days.

Seven or eight Dragon launches are planned this year, he said. The next Crew Dragon is scheduled for launch to the ISS tomorrow evening with the Axiom-3 private astronaut crew.

Four private astronauts are scheduled to launch tomorrow to the International Space Station on a SpaceX Crew Dragon for Axiom Space. L-R: Michael López-Alegria (Axiom Space), Walter Villadei (Italian Air Force), Alper Gezeravci (Turkish Air Force), Marcus Wandt (Swedish Air Force.)

Another Axiom mission is expected in the fall. Two crew launches to the ISS are scheduled for NASA. Another is the first of three missions for Jared Isaacman’s Polaris program. Isaacman bankrolled and commanded the first all-commercial human spaceflight mission, Inspiration4, in 2021.  He then bought two more Crew Dragon flights plus the first Starship crewed flight to Earth orbit. The first of the two Crew Dragon flights is expected this year and will include the first spacewalk by a private astronaut, wearing a SpaceX designed spacesuit.

Musk’s message to his workforce was that they accomplished a lot in 2023 and have a lot to be proud of, but it’s just the beginning of his vision of humanity’s future.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.