By Scott Ellis
Since astronauts first walked on the moon, the question has been: “Where do we go next?”
The obvious answer is our closest neighbour in space, Mars, but as the red planet is 54.6 million kilometres away, that seemed like a dream.
But there are now two plans to make the dream finally come true.
SpaceX, the world’s most successful privately owned space exploration company, and Lockheed Martin, one of America’s oldest builder of rockets, want to build a city on Mars, a floating base station in orbit, huge reusable rockets, and much more.
A space-faring civilisation
“The future is vastly more exciting and interesting if we’re a space-faring civilisation and a multi-planet species than if we’re not,” says SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk, at the International Astronautical Congress – a meeting of the world’s experts in space travel – in Adelaide on September 29.
A city in the stars
Mr Musk has plans for a rocket that could be powered by fuel made from water mined in space, a permanent moon base and a mission to Mars by 2022, with humans landing by 2024.
Next would be building a city.
“We build up the base starting with one ship, then multiple ships, then we start building up the city, making the city bigger and bigger and over time … making [Mars] a nice place to be,” he says.
Even Mr Musk admits his 2022 target mightn’t happen on time, but his announcement wasn’t the only Mars mission at the congress.
1,000 days in space
Lockheed Martin also has a plan – to build Mars base camp, an orbiting home for six astronauts on a 1,000-day mission that Danielle Richey, an engineer with the company, called “the greatest feat in human exploration history”.
A key part of the mission is the lander, which could take four astronauts to the surface of Mars, be their home for two weeks, then bring them safely back to the orbiting base camp.
No date has been given for this mission, but the US space agency NASA, which uses the Lockheed Martin rockets, has said stage one, returning astronauts to the moon for the first time in more than four decades, is planned for 2022.
Bring on the Aus-tronaut!
Around the world in an hour
While designing his new space program, Mr Musk discovered something “quite interesting”.
If he used the same rockets on Earth, almost anywhere on the planet was only about an hour away.
“Most of what people consider to be a long-distance trip would be completed in less than half an hour,” he says.
A trip from Sydney to Greece, for example, could be done in 47 minutes. At the moment those flights take about 24 hours.
“If we’re building this thing to go to Mars, why not use it to go to other places on Earth as well?” he says.
News of plans to visit Mars couldn’t have come at a better time for Australian kids who want to be astronauts.
On September 25 the Australian government said it would establish a space agency. It is setting up a three-year research and development program between the University of NSW in Canberra at the Australian Defence Force Academy and the Royal Australian Air Force.
So far the focus is on building and launching small satellites, but with an Australian space agency experts have said the door is now open for a true blue Aussie astronaut.
“Until now, an Australian who wanted to go into space had to become a citizen of another country,” says Professor Andrew Dempster, who works at the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research at the University of NSW.
“Paul Scully-Power and Andy Thomas were both born in Australia, but became US citizens to go into space with NASA.
“Now, Australian kids can aspire to be an astronaut and stay Australian!”