For years, Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX, has talked of making humanity an interplanetary species by someday sending colonists to Mars. The company is building a giant spacecraft, Starship, with that goal in mind.
But a newer rocket company, Relativity Space, and a small startup founded by an engineer who used to head rocket engine development at SpaceX, on Tuesday announced plans to send a privately developed robotic lander to Mars. Optimistically — very optimistically — the two companies say they could do it as soon as 2 1/2 years from now, when the positions of Earth and Mars line up again.
Timothy Ellis, the CEO and a founder of Relativity, said the way that SpaceX aspired to do things “at the edge of crazy and ambitious and audacious” was an inspiration.
“Those kinds of goals attract the best people to work on them,” Ellis said. “We are more audacious than some of the other companies.”
If a commercial Mars mission succeeds, it could open a new market in which institutions, companies and national space agencies could send payloads to the red planet at an economical cost.
Ellis declined to say how much the mission would cost, but said investment money raised by Relativity, as well as revenue from contracts it has to launch commercial satellites, could be enough to pay for the Mars mission. Relativity has, for example, a deal with the company OneWeb to take broadband satellites to
“I think there’s a real chance we can do it with what we currently have,” Ellis said.
But there are many reasons for skepticism.
A decade ago, for example, several space companies promised riches from asteroid mining, but they went out of business without ever getting close to an asteroid. Even Musk routinely gives overly optimistic predictions for SpaceX’s next milestone. (In 2016, he said Starship, which at the time was called the Interplanetary Transport System and was an even larger design, would make its first uncrewed flight to Mars by 2022.)
For now, Ellis lacks Musk’s record of eventually achieving most of his big promises.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.