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How The Launch Of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy Fits Into The Company's Otherworldly Plans


The successful launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket this week was a major achievement for the private space company SpaceX. And even though the Falcon Heavy is now the most powerful rocket in the world, it is just one more step toward the ultimate goal of SpaceX founder Elon Musk. His grand vision is a colony of a million people living on Mars.

To learn more about this plan, we called up Tim Urban of the website Wait But Why. He's written a lot about SpaceX and had long conversations with Musk. When we spoke earlier today, I asked Tim Urban why Elon Musk would want to put a million people on Mars.

TIM URBAN: If humanity is, you know, like a precious photo album you've got, the Earth is like a hard drive you have it on. And any sane person would obviously back it up to a second hard drive. That's kind of the idea here - is all of our eggs are currently on one planet. And if we can build a self-sustaining civilization on Mars, it's much harder for humanity to go extinct.

SHAPIRO: And a million people is about how many people he thinks it would take for a population to be self-sustaining.

URBAN: Right, self-sustaining meaning if something catastrophic happened on Earth during some world war or something that has to do with, you know, a really bad-case scenario with climate change, maybe some - I don't know - the species went extinct on Earth but ships stopped coming with supplies and anything else, a million people is enough that Mars' population would be fine.

SHAPIRO: If the Falcon Heavy is one step towards that goal, how many more steps are there? How long does Elon Musk think it will take?

URBAN: We're getting close 'cause the Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy are mostly built for what SpaceX does kind of for a living, which is deliver stuff to space for people. So satellites and...

SHAPIRO: You mean companies and countries pay SpaceX to send satellites into space.

URBAN: That's right - or cargo or people to the International Space Station or whatever else into orbit around Earth. That's not why Elon Musk built SpaceX. He built SpaceX to make human life multi-planetary, but they need to pay the bills in the meantime while they innovate.

SHAPIRO: Is the amount of commercial spaceflight that SpaceX is doing now actually enough to pay for this huge research project that they're doing?

URBAN: Yeah, it is. They have a full docket. And it pays well. I mean, not many - there's not many vendors that can take something to space for you. There's only a few countries that do this. There's only two countries right now that can launch people, which is China and Russia.

Now, a lot of the engines, for example, that the Russian rockets are currently using to launch people to the space station were actually made in 1960. They're not just 1960 technology. They're actually engines from 1960. And so as soon as people realized that they were reliable and far cheaper, their docket got full.

SHAPIRO: In the past, Elon Musk has made big promises both about SpaceX and Tesla and has missed the deadlines. Do you think his talk about colonizing Mars is realistic?

URBAN: So there's two kinds of realistic. There is deadline - you know, timeline realistic. And then there's just does-it-happen-at-all realistic. And Elon has very little cred on the first kind of realistic, but I think he's got a lot of cred on the second kind. One example is, you know, he said he's going to be able to land a rocket. A lot of people said - a lot of experts said this cannot be done. And physics says it cannot be done. NASA's tried it. Soviet Union tried it - never was able to be done. Elon said we can do it. And it took a lot longer than he said, but they did it.

And so if we look at that pattern - you know, Elon says that there's going to be people on Mars in 2025, and there's going to be a small city on Mars by 2040. So maybe those deadlines don't get hit. Maybe it's 2030 when people end up on Mars, maybe 2050 before that city. But it'll probably happen.

SHAPIRO: As big and impressive as Falcon Heavy is, the next rocket that SpaceX is working on, known as the BFR, which we will, for the purposes of radio, refer to as big fricking rocket, is way bigger - the size of a skyscraper. It can carry a hundred or more people. How close to reality is the BFR?

URBAN: It's a sketch, but it's a very specific sketch that is the actual rocket they're building. It's basically a cruise ship that travels through space. There's a rocket which lifts the whole thing out of Earth's, you know, very strong gravity well. The spaceship itself is the height of a 16-story skyscraper. It can take possibly as many as 200 or 300 people all at once to Mars, and then it can land vertically on Mars and take off from Mars one day alone with no rocket. Just the spaceship itself can take off from Mars and come back to earth, bringing people home - round-trip flight.

SHAPIRO: Would you go?

URBAN: Oh, definitely. It's - I mean, it's the ultimate adventurous thing to try to do.

SHAPIRO: Tim Urban of the blog Wait But Why, thanks so much for your time.

URBAN: Of course. Thanks for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE XX'S "INTRO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.