Elon Musk thinks you could travel to Mars really soon

The SpaceX founder hopes to put humans on Mars in the mid-2020s, but that's just the first tiny baby step toward creating his vision of a Martian metropolis.

This guy wants to send a million of us to Mars in the next century. Tim Stevens/CNET

We've been hearing from real-life Tony Stark inspiration Elon Musk about his hopes for sending humans to Mars for a few years now. But in a new interview, the SpaceX founder shares a vision that's far more grandiose than building a small base on the fourth rock from the sun. He envisions a Martian metropolis up and running within a century.

Previously, Musk has told journalists that manned missions to the Red Planet could be possible as soon as the mid-2020s, a pretty optimistic timeline when you consider that NASA is targeting the mid-2030s for such a mission and it took about a decade just for SpaceX to get to the space station for the first time. But in a fascinating conversation with Aeon Magazine, Musk dismisses such notions of pessimism (or realism, depending on your perspective and how many billions you have at your disposal).

"SpaceX is only 12 years old now," he said. "Between now and 2040, the company's lifespan will have tripled. If we have linear improvement in technology, as opposed to logarithmic, then we should have a significant base on Mars, perhaps with thousands or tens of thousands of people."

Musk says that first wave of settlers will have to pay their own way, probably to the tune of about a half million dollars each -- a migration he likens to those who saved up to pay for the treacherous voyage to the American colonies centuries ago.

Of course, the first few decades of attempted colonization of America's eastern shores were disastrous, as colonies were unable to support themselves in a foreign and unfamiliar land, but at least Jamestown and Plymouth had oxygen and water aplenty. What would it take to ensure a colony on another planet is both successful and sustainable?

Musk's answer is a bit of a stunner: He says it would take a million colonists. Even more mind-bending is the fact that, according to Musk's math, creating a city on Mars with more inhabitants than Austin, Texas, is achievable within a century's time.

He estimates that getting all those people and the cargo to support them to Mars would require "100,000 trips of a giant spaceship" from Earth. The rumor is that Musk is working on just such a colonial transport ship, and working out the logistics for such grand ambitions is built into the DNA of SpaceX, which is all about driving down the cost of space travel through reusable rocket technologies like the Grasshopper.

Not surprisingly, Musk's vision extends beyond Mars to other parts of the solar system. He imagines colonies on asteroids and on the more "welcoming" moons of Saturn and Jupiter, all centered around a new space economy that fosters our new multi-planet existence. The first step to achieving this in Musk's mind is to create a new Earth-to-Mars economy.

This vision might not be as crazy as it sounds when you consider that the colonization of the continent where I write from today was largely driven by a ravenous global search for things like spices, gold and silver. Keep in mind that at the time of Columbus, these precious items were largely just luxury goods -- humanity had not even begun to put them to use for more wonderful and practical things like dental fillings, electrical circuits or Sriracha.

But I wonder if this new interplanetary society and economy is further away than Musk believes. SpaceX seems to be succeeding in its quest to commercialize space travel, but its biggest client is not a large corporation looking to explore new, space-based business opportunities. Instead, it is me, my editor and a few hundred million other American taxpayers that fund NASA. So maybe SpaceX hasn't really commercialized space travel so much as it has just established itself as a reliable government contractor for the same old space program we've had for decades now.

I think my Martian condo and the Earth-to-Mars economy that will make it possible are a little further off than some billionaires would have you believe. What do you think? Let us know in the comments below or tweet @crave.

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