LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
This is Lulu's log, stardate October 1, 2017, where we consider matters of space, the stars and the universe.
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GARCIA-NAVARRO: The International Astronautical Congress gathered in Australia this week, and there were sessions on nanosatellites and a talk called 50 Ways to Leave Your Earth. Billionaire inventor Elon Musk was there to tout one way to get off our home planet, a rocket his company SpaceX is developing. Destination, Mars. And when might that first happen? Musk's PowerPoint said by 2022, and Musk said, quote, "that's not a typo." Nell Greenfieldboyce of NPR's Science Desk joins us now to talk about how realistic this is. Hey, Nell.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hey.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Did we get a better sense of what this kind of travel might look like?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. So compared to a plan to go to Mars that he unveiled last year, this plan seems still pretty sci-fi, but not quite so far out as before. And it relies on something SpaceX is developing that they're calling the BFR. That stands for big and rocket, and the F I'll leave to your imagination.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So this would be a huge rocket - more powerful than the Saturn V moon rocket - that could take about a hundred people per flight to Mars. And he's claiming that their goal is to land this thing without a crew on Mars, just carrying cargo in 2022 and then have flights with a crew two years later.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That sounds exciting. But how seriously can we take his claims?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So SpaceX is kind of notorious for setting these ambitious schedules and then not meeting them. You know, we should think about the fact that SpaceX has never flown a human being in space. So the idea that they're going to put, you know, a hundred people on Mars in seven years sounds pretty ambitious.
On the other hand, SpaceX has an agreement with NASA to fly astronauts up to the space station next year, and they have been already using a rocket and a capsule to take cargo back and forth to the space station. They were the first private company ever to do that. So, I mean, does it sound pretty crazy? Yes. On the other hand, has SpaceX done unprecedented stuff in space? Yes. And Elon Musk has always been very clear that colonizing Mars was sort of his whole point in setting up SpaceX.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm curious, though. Does he have competition? Are there other companies or governments working towards Mars travel, as well, or has he sort of cornered the market in that, too?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, obviously, NASA has always wanted to go to Mars. And NASA has been spending billions on a space-launch system. It's sort of a big, new rocket in a capsule. The rocket is supposed to launch in 2019 without a crew on board and then send a capsule to orbit the moon and return. People wouldn't go up for a few years after that. And you know, NASA says it wants to go to Mars by the 2030s, but some people say their space system is too expensive and that it's missing some of the sort of critical hardware you would need to actually land and have people on Mars.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are there regulations that might get in the way? Are there rules that would govern what they can or can't do in space? What does it mean...
GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...To have a private company do this?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, I mean, you know, they wouldn't own it, OK? So the U.S. signed the Outer Space Treaty. That dates back to 1967. And so, you know, there are a lot of rules about space, but there's nothing really to stop a private company from landing on Mars or setting up, you know, a little city there. The launches would be regulated. I mean, the Federal Aviation Administration controls launches.
And there are some sort of agreements about what's called planetary protection, basically not contaminating other alien worlds with our microbes. I don't know how that would be handled, but you can be sure that Elon Musk has already thought about all of this. So I figure, you know, that's a little far-off, not something you have to worry about now. But I'm sure all those legal battles will happen when they come.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: NPR's science correspondent, Nell Greenfieldboyce. Thank you so much.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.