The Race to Mars Heats Up Fast

By: Julian Fahrion

The race to Mars may have begun. On Sept. 27, the aerospace manufacturing company SpaceX announced its newest project: the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), a spacecraft system designed to take 100 people at a time from Earth to Mars in a 90-to-150-day voyage. This in and of itself is remarkable, but the situation escalated when, on Oct. 4, Dennis Muilenburg, the CEO of Boeing, announced at a technology summit that, “I’m convinced the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding on a Boeing rocket.”

While Boeing and SpaceX both want humans on Mars, they are competitors, and this challenge may spark the start of another full-blown space race.

SpaceX is an aerospace company with an emphasis on innovations in space travel and rocketry. SpaceX is the only private company to launch a spacecraft carrying cargo to the International Space Station and return to Earth. It also claimed the first-ever landing of an orbital rocket with its Falcon 9 spacecraft in 2016. Its CEO, Elon Musk, is also the co-founder of Tesla Motors.

“There’s certainly a romantic, sci-fi appeal to colonizing planets,” South physics teacher Asher Tubman said. “I think it’s a pretty big priority.”

While SpaceX has a history of success and innovation, it also has a tendency to exceed deadlines and, on a few unfortunate occasions, fail in an explosive manner. In 2015, a rocket carrying supplies for the International Space Station caught fire and exploded shortly after launch. On two separate occasions, drone rockets attempting to land on barges have fallen and self-incinerated. There have been no injuries related to SpaceX accidents, however, and the company has reliably returned to work after each loss.

“Technologically, it seems pretty hard, but so did going to the moon,” Tubman said.

The ITS revealed on the 27th is a system of spacecraft designed to carry passengers to Mars. It consists of three separate designs: the ITS launch vehicle, the ITS tanker, and the interplanetary spaceship.

The ITS launch vehicle is expected to carry the interplanetary spaceship or ITS tanker into low Earth orbit (LEO). It would use a total of 42 Raptor engines to achieve thrust over three times greater than that of the Saturn V rocket, currently the most powerful rocket ever used. In another advantage over the Saturn V (and nearly all currently-operational rockets), the ITS launch vehicle is planned to be reusable, returning to its launch pad to refuel after a successful mission. This would drastically reduce the costs associated with putting objects into space.

The interplanetary spaceship is built to carry 100 potential colonists from Earth to Mars. It would expend most of its propellant reaching LEO, at which point it would require refueling from ITS tankers carried by launch vehicles. The ability to refuel in orbit increases the effective range of a spacecraft immensely. The interplanetary spaceship would land on Mars after a 90-to-150-day voyage and immediately set up a propellant plant to refuel itself using a chemical process called the Sabatier reaction, allowing it to produce the necessary materials to return to Earth solely from elements found on Mars.

“Eventually, this planet will run out of resources,” South sophomore Katie Russell said.

While SpaceX’s ITS system is novel and potentially revolutionary, Boeing’s record in spaceflight is nearly unmatched. Boeing created the first stage of the Saturn V rocket, assisted with the Space Shuttle, and is a primary contractor for the International Space Station. Boeing’s current plan for Mars is NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), for which Boeing is a planned manufacturer. The SLS is similar to SpaceX’s launch vehicle: a rocket with more thrust than any before that should reduce costs and allow manned missions farther in the solar system. Unlike the ITS launch vehicle, the SLS is not intended to be reusable, making it simultaneously less desirable and based more in currently-feasible technology.

An artist's conception of a SpaceX Dragon 2 landing on Mars

“I’m at a loss to think of many scenarios that would produce a greater technological advancement than two great companies competing for the stars,” said South junior and Robotics Club strategy team leader Alex Chamberlin.

Both companies will have to solve many problems before manned missions to Mars can begin. Potential colonists will have to adapt to lower gravity on the voyage, which causes health issues over long periods. Mars lacks a magnetosphere, making radiation from the sun a potentially lethal problem. Food, water, and oxygen will need to be accounted for during the voyage and on Mars. Despite all of this, humanity is closer to Mars than ever before.

“I think it’s good, actually,” Russell said of private enterprises attempting to reach Mars. “I think there will have to be regulations.”

However, participation in the race to Mars is not limited to private science companies. NASA, America’s leading government-backed space exploration and research agency, has also announced plans to send humans to the Red Planet in the near future.

President Obama signed the NASA Authorization Act in 2010, which tasked the agency with doing just that. Despite this, NASA has faced criticism from Congress for lacking details and a hard deadline for the project.

“What we have right now from NASA is the decision that it should be done — someday,” says Zubrin, current president of the Mars Society.

Elon Musk has repeatedly stated that the more people and organizations attempt to get to Mars, the more likely this feat becomes. The competition between Boeing and SpaceX is friendly and altruistic, not just in the interests of profit. For the first time, the world has practical and realistic plans to colonize another world, devised by some of the most experienced individuals in the industry. What was science fiction a decade ago may be reality a decade from now.


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