The Triple Helix @ UChicago

Fall 2017

"Approach Velocity: Our Near Future Two-Planet Reality" by Edward Zhou


Maybe you’ve heard of SpaceX and Tesla. These two companies, created and led by Elon Musk, now stand positioned to bring Google and Amazon like levels of influence to the way we live our lives, upending entire industries and fundamentally changing our worldview.

An ideal world for Musk is a world where humans drive electric cars and live in permanent cities on mars.

If that vision sounds like a pipe dream, you certainly wouldn’t be the first to think that way. Well-known names in the field of astronomy, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, have stood in strong opposition to private spaceflight as recently as late 2015: “The delusion is thinking that SpaceX is going to lead the space frontier. That’s just not going to happen, and it’s not going to happen for three really good reasons: One, it is very expensive. Two, it is very dangerous to do it first. Three, there is essentially no return on that investment that you’ve put in for having done it first... Corporations need business models, and they need to satisfy shareholders, public or private.”

On Wall Street, Tesla remains one of the most bet-against companies in the world, slammed with overvaluation reports by the likes of Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, and Barclays. Sometimes, it seems as if these investment banks simply don’t like Tesla; JPMorgan reiterated its overvalued rating just 2 months ago, reporting that they had concluded Tesla should be valued an absolutely staggering 2.5% less than they had previously thought — the same amount Tesla’s stock frequently fluctuates on a day to day basis.

However, Musk, undeterred, began developing the technology to make humanity a multi-planetary species in the wake of the dot-com boom during the May of 2002, while simultaneously pursuing his other goal of facilitating humanity’s transition to electrically powered cars. (You know you’re setting the bar when you have not one, but two humanity-scope goals) His is a tale of truly epic proportions: simultaneously running two idealistic and expensive startups with revolutionary technologies in industries dominated by deep seated-incumbents. Musk had made about $20 million from founding a company called Zip2 and $180 million from Paypal — $100 million went into SpaceX, $70 million into Tesla, and $10 million into SolarCity (which would later merge with Tesla to become its solar power division). In comparison, competitors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, as well as the entirety of the US automotive industry (the last successful new US car company was Chrysler in the 1920’s) had budgets in the billions of dollars. With the funds he had available, Musk believed he had enough for three launch attempts — all of which failed before orbit. To make life easier, in 2007 and 2008, as Musk scrounged up the money for one final launch while simultaneously attempting to bring Tesla’s first electric car to market, economies worldwide melted down as the housing bubble burst, sucking the funding for unproven ventures dry.

Then, in September of 2008, the fourth launch at SpaceX succeeded, resulting in a billion dollar contract with NASA. Another flight went off without a hitch, and then another. SpaceX, which had been working doggedly on reusable spacecraft, even landed and recovered their first rocket, achieving what no organization, government or otherwise, had ever accomplished before. SpaceX now had the most advanced rockets on the planet, and, producing a large portion of their parts in-house, could offer satellite launches and restocking missions to the international space station for a fraction of the cost charged by competitors.

With a perfect record of 14/14 successful launches and a perfect 11/11 landing record in 2017 (no attempt was made to land on three of the launches when the mission required too much fuel to attempt an earthside return), it is becoming harder and harder to bet against SpaceX. Having demonstrated the reliability of its rockets, of which the current iteration is the Falcon 9, and armed with a steady revenue stream from satellite launches and government contracts of its own, SpaceX now has its sights firmly set on Mars.

Elon Musk likes to dream big - really big. So the vehicle intended to bring the first humans to Mars, is, unsurprisingly, called the BFR, which definitely means Big Falcon Rocket... at least officially. SpaceX has a sense of humor with these things.

As its name would imply, the BFR is big. Big enough to accommodate about 100 people comfortably to the Red Planet. Musk has indicated plans to send the first BFRs to Mars in 2022, which is less than half a decade away.

The first mission would be uncrewed, with the primary goals of landing cargo and establishing support infrastructure that would be used for the manned follow-up flight, planned for 2024. Missions thereafter are projected to remain approximately two years apart, as Earth and Mars orbits come closest together approximately once every two years.

How will SpaceX pay for all this? No doubt, satellite launches and government contracts will play a significant role. Additionally, Musk has announced at the International Astronautical Congress 2017 that the next incumbent-filled industry set for a Musk-ian revamp is air travel — SpaceX BFRs plan to take passengers anywhere in the world in less than an hour for the price of a typical economy ticket.

2024 isn’t that far from today: it’s less than two summer olympics away. Many of the most challenging pieces of the puzzle, such as rocket landing and reuse technology, have already been developed, and their efficacy has been demonstrated time and time again. The BFR is essentially a scaled-up version of what SpaceX is already using. The future, as it seems, is now. We already have smartphone—magical devices that give us access to the world’s collective knowledge and assist us with every part of our lives. We already have Amazon, which delivers countless products to our fingertips with the press of a button. Now we have reusable rockets that can take us to Mars and simultaneously place any point in the world within easy traveling distance. The question is: will we be ready? What implications will the further breakdown of geographical barriers and a second society on Mars have here on Earth? What resources and hidden treasures lie in wait for us on the Red Planet? Will we go about terraforming Mars, restoring its atmosphere and molding its environment to resemble Earth?

Perhaps, when the first group of explorers takes their first step outside of the world which we have always called home, setting up camp at 000-00, Mars City One, Borealis basin, we will feel like the future has finally arrived. Hopefully, by then, we’ll have more answers for that future.


[1] O'Kane, Sean. "Neil deGrasse Tyson: 'The delusion is thinking that SpaceX is going to lead the space frontier'." The Verge. November 24, 2015. Accessed December 09, 2017.

[2] "TSLA Tesla, Inc. Stock Quote." Finviz. December 08, 2017. Accessed December 09, 2017.

[3] "Business Search - Results." Alex Padilla California Secretary of State. Accessed December 09, 2017.

[4] Urban, Tim. "Elon Musk: The World's Raddest Man." Wait But Why. May 7, 2015. Accessed December 09, 2017.

[5] "Edgar | Company Filings." U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. February 05, 2017. Accessed December 09, 2017.

[6] Urban, Tim. "Elon Musk: The World's Raddest Man." Wait But Why. May 7, 2015. Accessed December 09, 2017.

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] "List of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches." Wikipedia. Accessed December 09, 2017.

[10] YouTube. September 28, 2017. Accessed December 09, 2017.

[11] ibid

[12] ibid

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