ITS rockets will launch the spaceships to Earth orbit, then come back down for a pinpoint landing about 20 minutes later. And “pinpoint” is not hyperbole: “With the addition of maneuvering thrusters, we think we can actually put the booster right back on the launch stand,” Musk wrote in his New Space paper, citing SpaceX's increasingly precise Falcon 9 first-stage landings.
The ITS boosters will launch many spaceships and fuel tankers (which will top up the spaceships' tanks) to orbit over the course of their operational lives; the rockets will be designed to fly about 1,000 times each, Musk wrote. The spaceships, meanwhile, will hang out in orbit, and then depart en masse when Earth and Mars align favorably. This happens once every 26 months.
Eventually, Musk wrote, he envisions 1,000 or more ITS spaceships, each carrying 100 or more people, leaving Earth orbit during each of these Mars windows. The architecture could conceivably get 1 million people to Mars within the next 50 to 100 years, he has said.
You know a goal is audacious when just reaching 10% would be insane. Hell, reaching 1% would be.
The ITS' reusability is key to making Mars colonization affordable. This reusability — combined with other measures, such as fueling the spaceships in Earth orbit and making propellant on Mars — could bring the price of a Red Planet trip down to $200,000 or so per person, from an estimated $10 billion using conventional spaceflight systems, Musk said.
ITS spaceships could begin flying to Mars about 10 years from now, if everything goes well, Musk added. But he acknowledged that success is far from guaranteed.
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