SpaceX Was Born Because Elon Musk Wanted to Grow Plants on Mars

Before there was SpaceX, there was Mars Oasis.

Doug Bierend

Image: Screenshot, SpaceX

SpaceX has been busy transforming the space industry. Their Falcon 9 rocket, which the Air Force certified last week, has already dramatically cut the costs of orbital access. With fully reusable rockets and crew capsules and a healthy manifest of payload deliveries for governments and corporations alike, SpaceX seems poised to revolutionize orbital access altogether. It’s a poetic trajectory for a company that emerged from its CEO’s inability to secure an affordable launch vehicle for a very different goal: growing plants on Mars.

In 2001, Musk had just sold Paypal to eBay, leaving him with a couple hundred million dollars and a lot of free time. Instead of retiring to a tropical atoll and calling it a life, he decided to continue pressing into the three arenas he’s often cited as most critical to humanity’s future: the Internet, sustainable transportation, and establishing a human colony on other worlds.

Disappointed that NASA had zero plans for a manned Mars mission, Musk took it as a sign that America had lost its will to explore space. So he devised a philanthropic plan to stir public excitement, spark innovation, and hopefully secure NASA additional funds the way the lunar landings did in the 60s.

The idea was dubbed Mars Oasis, and it represented an intersection of the technical creativity and entrepreneurial savvy that have brought Musk so much success. A small lander carrying a glass-enclosed greenhouse would be launched to the surface. Seeds embedded in dehydrated nutrient gels would activate when the little lander touched down, sending back images and data as the leafy cargo grew and died on the planet’s surface. It could reveal a lot about the viability of transporting life to Mars and sustaining it there—a worthy experiment indeed.

Even more valuable though was its potential to excite the masses about eventually putting footprints on Martian soil. The mission was based on the notion that the public responds to precedents and superlatives: it would be the first multicellular life on Mars, and the furthest it had ever traveled. The first sight of green plant life growing against a red backdrop would make for an indelible image, an Earthrise of its time. Rather than an arena for spy satellites or weather research, the idea was to revive the vision of space as a frontier of human exploration.

Plans were drafted for the lander and technical challenges were addressed (such as overcoming plants’ sensitivity to hypobaric environments), and the cost was reduced to fit into Musk’s budget. The real snag came when Musk and his team tried to find a rocket to send the whole works up. The cheapest US launch vehicles were too expensive, about $65 million each. Musk was paying out of pocket for two missions in case the first failed—it looked like the rockets alone would break his budget.

So he looked to Russia. Over three surreal trips, Musk tried negotiating on the price of a pair of de-nuked Russian ICBMs. They would’ve been about $10 million each; a lot cheaper than a Delta II. At this point, though, all the rocket troubles had spurred a reconsideration of the mission’s original premise.

“I was wrong,” Musk told Khan Academy’s Salman Khan, in a great interview. “I thought that there wasn’t enough will, but there actually was plenty of will if people thought there was a way. So then I decided, OK, well, I need to work on the way.”

Cost and limitations of technology were the real impediment to mankind’s interplanetary travel plans. Americans are prepared to get plenty excited about new adventures, they just don’t want it to break the bank. The most good, he figured, could be done by innovating new launch methods that could bring the price down to more reasonable levels.

At this point SpaceX launch costs are well below their ULA competitors, whose launches average more than $200 million. If and when their reusable rockets become the standard means of delivery, SpaceX claims it would reduce costs by two orders of magnitude. That means a huge change in an area of activity once closed to all but the most powerful nations and their militaries.

Make no mistake, Musk has his sights set squarely on Mars, intending to establish a fully self-sustaining colony with sincere plans to visit the planet himself.

“It’s the first time in four and a half billion years that we are at a level of technology where we have the ability to reach Mars,” he said at SXSW last year. “I will go if I can be assured that SpaceX would go on without me . . . I've said I want to die on Mars, just not on impact.”

With his current track record, I wouldn’t doubt he pulls it off. In the mean time, NASA may be taking up the cause of putting plants on Mars, as the idea of a human presence on the planet has gained currency in the last decade. It would’ve been amazing to see the money shot had Musk’s original plan come to fruition, but traveling between planets on a ship called the Dragon sounds pretty cool, too.