SpaceX wants to colonize Mars—not just land a human on the planet, not just build a research outpost there, but establish a self-sustaining community of some 80,000 Martians. How exactly the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation is going to pull this off is the subject of a keynote speech, titled "Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species," that Elon Musk will be giving tomorrow at the in Guadalajara, Mexico.
The most anticipated news that Musk is likely to address in his speech is the progress SpaceX has made on its Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), formerly called the Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT). The ITS is a series of new spaceflight vehicles and architecture that will be required to launch humans and supplies to another planet. It includes the Red Dragon capsule that SpaceX plans to launch to Mars in 2018 and a massive new Mars injection orbit spacecraft that would be capable of transporting 100 tons of cargo. But perhaps most exciting, it includes a new super heavy launch vehicle, which does not have an official name, but is widely referred to as the BFR for Big Fucking Rocket, a name coined by Musk himself.
The new Mars shuttle and BFR are only design ideas that have been teased by SpaceX, so it remains to be seen whether a concrete plan to develop one or both of these new spaceflight systems—or something completely unknown to the public at this point—will be revealed during Musk's speech. However, the fact that SpaceX just test-fired its new Raptor engine–a methane-fueled rocket booster with more than three times the thrust capabilities of the Merlin engine powering the Falcon 9—suggests an announcement about the BFR might be imminent.
Part of Musk's goal is not just to reveal the latest and greatest spaceships from SpaceX, but to do it in such a way that Congress is likely to provide substantial and much-needed funding to the Hawthorne-based private aerospace company. Musk may be a billionaire, but between all the money he's already sunk into Tesla, SolarCity and SpaceX, his pockets aren't deep enough to take us to Mars on his own.
Getting the kind of support Musk wants from the government is going to be difficult. There are concerns raised by the recent Falcon 9 explosion, not to mention competition from other private spaceflight companies such as United Launch Alliance (a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin). All that, and a significant number of taxpayer dollars are already going to spaceflight in the form of NASA's super heavy launch vehicle, the Space Launch System, slated for first flight in 2018.
But if Musk can successfully argue that SpaceX is uniquely situated to lead the charge to Mars, he just might get the support he needs. A NASA paper published in June of this year titled "Frontier In-Situ Resource Utilization for Enabling Sustained Human Presence on Mars" argues that not only is self-sustained human life on Mars possible, but it is achievable with technologies that either already exist or are on the cusp of being viable. The Curiosity rover and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have been making new discoveries on Mars about the abundance of water and useful minerals. A new scientific instrument on Mars 2020 will attempt to extract oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, a proof of concept that could ultimately lead to devices that could extract sufficient resources from Mars's atmosphere to make fuels and plastics on the planet.
Tomorrow, Musk will take the stage to convince the world that he is the man to lead us to Mars. You can watch a livestream of the speech, tentatively scheduled for 2:30 p.m. EDT September 27, .