Elon Musk, a moon base and a colony on Mars: SpaceX boss reveals more about making humans a “multi-planet species”

Elon Musk has revealed more information about his vision to turn the human race into a multi-planet species.

A year after revealing his inital Mars colonisation plans, the billionaire said he wanted to update his designs and explain more about how we’ll get there, and how we’ll pay for it, while speaking at the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide.

Namely, he said that to get to Mars we need to ditch the current systems, which would involve making his own Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy and Dragon “redundant”. He, instead, plans to replace these rockets with “a smaller vehicle; one that can do everything that’s needed during greater Earth orbit activity”. He didn’t name the ship, but said its codename is BFR. 

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During his hour-long talk, the Space X billionaire detailed more about the payload of BFR, how Space X will refuel at Moon Base Alpha, and what landing will look like on Mars. He revealed more about the cabins on the ship and showed animations of the Mars colony being built up over time. He also reiterated his timeline for these events. You can watch the full talk here, or read more about this plans below.

“The future is vastly more exciting and interesting if we’re a multi-planet species than if we’re not. You want to be inspired by things; you want to wake up in the morning and think life can be great,” Musk said as he opened his talk.

“It’s about believing in the future and believing the future can be better than the past and I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”

Deep cryo tank


The first slide showed his latest deep cryo liquid oxygen testing tank measuring 12 metres with a volume of 1,000m3. It is capable of holding 1,200 tonnes of liquid oxygen, and is covered in what Musk called a “new carbon-fibre matrix” said to be stronger and “more capable of handling cryo tests than anything that’s come before”.

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SpaceX has tested this tank to “breaking point” (shown via a video in which the tank exploded) and Musk said the company now has a “pretty good idea about what is needed for a highly pressured gyrogenic liquid”.

Raptor engines

The Raptor engine will be the “highest thrust-rate engine of any engine of any kind ever made,” explained Musk. SpaceX has fired this engine for around 1,200 seconds across 42 tests, the longest lasting 100 seconds – a minute longer than what is thought to be needed for a typical Mars landing. Musk did stress that it will last longer than 100 seconds, but these are the figures from the engine tests.

The engine operates at up to 200 atmospheres, 200 BAR, but the final version is expected to run at 250, rising eventually to 300.

Propulsive landing

“In order to land on places like the moon where there is no atmosphere, and certainly no runways, or to land on Mars where the atmosphere is too thin, you really have to get propulsive landing perfect. That’s what we’ve been practicing with Falcon 9,” said Musk in front of a video of previous landing. He celebrated the fact SpaceX has made 16 successful landings in a row “without any redundancy,” meaning the Falcon 9 always lands with a single engine while BFR will have multi-engine capability.

“When you take refilling on orbit into account, and having a self-sustaining base on Mars on the moon, seriously you’ll need thousands of ships, and tens of thousands of retaking operations which means you need many launches per day.

“In terms of landings, you need to be looking at your watch, not your calendar!”

Automated rendezvous and docking

In order to refuel a spaceship in orbit, Musk explained that you have to be able to rendezvous and dock with a spaceship with very high precision. “That’s what we’ve perfected with Dragon.” Dragon 1 currently uses an arm to attach itself to the space station, but Dragon 2, set to launch next year, will not need that arm – it will directly dock with the space station with zero human intervention.

Musk continued that the work SpaceX has done with Dragon has also helped engineers to perfect heat-shield technology. “When you enter at high velocity, you’ll melt almost anything so you have to have a sophisticated heat-shield technology.”

BFR numbers and design


The booster on the BFR will be lifted by 31 Raptor engines to produce liftoff thrust of 5,400 tons, lifting a total vehicle mass of 4,400 tons.

The ship will measure 48 metres, with a body diameter of nine metres. Musk described it as being “like as if an upper-stage Falcon and Dragon were combined”.

 The Mars Transit Configuration – how the ship will house humans on its way to Mars – was shown including 40 cabins and a common area with “entertainment,” central storage, a galley and a solar storm shelter.

“It will be larger than an A380 cabin,” said Musk. “You could conceivably have five or six people per cabin, but we’d expect two to three people per cabin making it possible to take about 100 people on a flight to Mars.”

“It’s crazy that we build these sophisticated rockets and then crash them every time we fly. It’s mad. I can’t emphasise how profound this is” 

“This is a profound realisation. If we can build a system that cannibalises our own products – makes our own products redundant – then all of the resources that are used for Falcon 9 Heavy and Dragon can be applied to one system.


“Some of our customers are conservative and they want to see BFR fly several times so we plan to build a stock of Falcon 9 and Dragon vehicles, if customers want to use these old spacecraft, but then all of our resources will turn towards building BFR. We can do this with the revenue we receive from launching satellites and and for servicing the space station.”

Moon Base Alpha

Based on the calculations SpaceX has done, Musk believes the company can do lunar surface missions with no propellant production on the surface of the moon.

“If we retank in a high elliptic orbit, we can go all the way to the moon and back with no local propellant production on the moon. That would enable Moon Base Alpha to be built.” Musk then showed a mock-up of the base saying that it is “quite captivating.” 

“It’s 2017, we should have a lunar base by now. What the hell’s going on?” Musk then exclaimed.

Getting to Mars

Before the talk, Musk teased two images of how he envisages a moon base and colony on Mars will look. The moon base will serve as a “rest-stop” of sorts to refuel before launching to the Red Planet. In the Mars picture, Musk explained that the day would be red but the nights would be blue. 

During his talk, Musk said: “Becoming a multi-planet species beats the hell out of being a single-planet species. So we’d start off by sending a mission to Mars.” 

By 2022, Musk explained he wants to have landed at least two cargo ships on Mars, and wants SpaceX to have confirmed if there are water resources and identify hazards, before placing power, mining, and “life-support infrastructure” for future flights.

By 2024, he wants two crew ships to take the first people to Mars, two cargo ships to take more equipment and supplies, he wants to set up a propellant production plant and build up base to prepare for expansion. An animation then revealed how he imagines this base will be grow.

Earlier this year, in a wide-ranging interview with GQ, Musk described the need to go Mars as: “You back up your hard drive… Maybe we should back up life, too?”

Images: Elon Musk

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