SpaceX‘s Mars-colonizing spacecraft, Starship, is at its eighth prototype iteration and still hasn’t really lifted off the ground—the farthest it has gone by far is 150 meters (500 feet) in two separate “hop” tests. But Elon Musk said it would take only two more years for SpaceX to fly the first cargo mission to Mars, with the first humans landing there by 2026.
“We are going to try and send an uncrewed vehicle there in two years,” the SpaceX founder said on Tuesday at the Axel Springer Award 2020 ceremony in Berlin, Germany. “I’d say six years from now, highly confident [that humans will travel to Mars]. If we get lucky, maybe four years.”
The reason these milestones are planned two years apart has nothing to do with technological or regulatory barriers (although they may very well exist), but that the launch window to Mars happens roughly every two years—when the Red Planet’s orbit is properly lined up with that of Earth’s.
Starship is designed to ferry up to 100 people to Mars or any planet in the solar system. Musk said he hopes to be one of the first passengers on the spacecraft in the next two to three years.
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Yet, even if SpaceX delivers on that timeline, there’s plenty of work to be done to truly bring Musk’s vision of interplanetary living to life.
“I’m mostly concerned with developing the technology that can enable a lot of people to go to Mars and make life multi-planetary, have a base on the moon, a city on Mars,” he said. “I think it’s important that we strive to have a self-sustaining city on Mars as soon as possible.”
This week, the latest Starship prototype, SN8, is expected to fly its first high-altitude test to jump 15 kilometers (50,000 feet) into the sky and then come back. The prototype has completed multiple static-fire engine tests to prepare for the big hop. Still, uncertainties remain and there’s only one in three chance of success, Musk cautioned.
The high-altitude test could happen as soon as Thursday, pending approval by the Federal Aviation Association.
The Axel Springer Award is an annual prize given by German publishing giant Axel Springer SE to recognize outstanding individuals “who are particularly innovative, and who generate and change markets, influence culture and at the same time face up to their responsibility to society.” Past recipients include Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee and Harvard business school professor Shoshana Zuboff.