In an appearance at the 2017 International Space Station Research and Development (ISSR&D) conference in Washington, D.C. on Monday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took the stage to answer questions about the future of his private space travel organization, as well as how some of his other endeavors may aid in mankind’s effort to become an interplanetary species.

NASA ISS program manager Kirk Shireman conducted the interview on stage before a crowd of space industry experts and journalists, which was fitting, as Musk’s statements would seem to support the idea of NASA shifting its operational goals toward the moon, rather than Mars.  Last week, William Gerstenmaier, NASA’S chief of Human Space Flight, admitted that NASA likely won’t be able to send humans to Mars in the 2030s as planned, due to budgetary limitations.

To really get the public real fired up, I think we’ve got to have a base on the moon,” Musk told the crowd. “Having some permanent presence on another heavenly body, which would be the kind of moon base, and then getting people to Mars and beyond — that’s the continuance of the dream of Apollo that I think people are really looking for.”

Because NASA’s budget may not allow for the Mars mission laid out by President Trump, some have suggested placing NASA’s focus on a Moon mission instead.  A number of other nations, as well as private organizations, have announced plans to reach the moon within the next few years.  If the U.S. can’t make it to Mars and ignores the moon, it runs the risk of simply falling behind its competitors.

Seemingly happy to leave the moon’s surface to NASA, Musk went on to explain that SpaceX’s massive and reusable Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), first announced last September, would see a design update before moving forward toward production.  While the updated design will be unveiled at the International Aeronautical Conference this coming September, Musk did provide some details into changes he believes will make the ship a more feasible reality.

Chief among these changes is a slight reduction in size.  As announced, the original ITS was expected to ferry as many as 100 people, as well as the accompanying supplies to keep them alive, to Mars on each trip.  By reducing the expected crew payload, the rockets can offset some of the cost of launch by also delivering orbital assets, such as satellites, before leaving earth behind.

That’s one of the key elements in the new architecture,” Musk said. “It’s similar to what was [unveiled] at IAC (International Astronautical Congress), but it’s a little bit smaller — still big. I think this one’s got a shot at being real on the economic front. You know, that’s the trick.”

Looking even further ahead, Musk announced that one of his other projects, the Boring Company, could see use on the Red Planet.  The Boring Company is a tunnel boring business Musk started to create a network of subterranean passageways beneath congested city streets like Los Angeles, and eventually, to connect those cities with one another for faster transportation.  That tunneling technology, however, could also provide Mars colonists with the ability to mine for frozen water or other natural resources.  Further, Musk says, future Mars colonies may involve living under the surface of the planet, to hide astronauts from radiation.

“You can build a tremendous amount underground with the right boring technology on Mars, so I do think there’s some overlap in that technology-development arena,” Musk said.

Of course, bringing tunnel borers to Mars is still a long way off, Musk admitted.

“The Earth ones are really heavy. Like, really heavy,” Musk said. “You’re not worried about weight for an Earth tunneling machine; actually, you want one that’s nice and heavy. But a Mars one, you’d have to redesign it to be superlight — that’s a tricky one — and then just take into account the different conditions on Mars and everything else.”


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