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Rocketeer aims for Mars in 10 years

SpaceX's millionaire founder, Elon Musk, says his rocket company can get humans to Mars in as little as 10 years. "Worst case, 15 to 20 years," he adds. 

The prediction comes toward the end of this video interview with The Wall Street Journal's Alan Murray. Musk spends most of the interview chatting about his Tesla electric-car venture, but starting at the 13-minute mark, he gets into the topic that stirred up so much buzz over the weekend.

Last year, Musk told me that making money on the Internet is so much easier than making money by launching rockets. He's not in the space business for the money. Instead, he's in it to further his personal vision of getting the rest of us off this rock.

"A future where humanity is a spacefaring civilization, out there exploring the stars, is an incredibly exciting future, and inspiring," he told Murray in the video, "and so that's what we're trying to help make happen. I really want SpaceX to help make life multiplanetary. I'd like to see a self-sustaining base on Mars."

But is that practical? When Murray pressed him on the point, Musk said he thought it was. He repeated his forecast that SpaceX could put astronauts into Earth orbit in three years, and then he went on to set the year 2021 as a possible date for a human mission to the Red Planet. The NASA outlook isn't quite so ambitious: Last year, President Barack Obama targeted the mid-2030s as the time frame for manned missions to Mars and its moons.

Musk didn't lay out a detailed plan for his space program, of course — and one of SpaceX's executives, Larry Williams, told me earlier this month that missions beyond Earth orbit would still probably have to be led by governments, with corporations taking a supporting role. (He also said humans could get to Mars by the end of the decade if there was a national imperative to do so.) 

Despite the lack of specifics, SpaceX and its founder are definitely thinking about the big picture, and not just about the next test flight. In the video, Musk said his long-term vision is to serve the same function as shipping companies and railroads served in earlier centuries, as opposed to building an operating colonies on other planest.

"Our goal is to facilitate the transfer of people and cargo to other planets," he said, "and then it's going to be up to the people if they want to go."

One guy who wants to go into space is Jeff Greason, chief executive officer and co-founder of XCOR Aerospace. During a videotaped TEDx talk in San Jose, Calif., Greason told his techie audience that he started up XCOR in part so that he could get his own ride into space. That, and something that his son once told him.

Greason became emotional when he recalled his son's question: "Daddy, is it true that they used to fly to the moon when you were a boy?"

"That shook me, and it still does," he said. "That's how a dark age begins. A dark age is not just when you as a civilization have forgotton how to do something. It's when you forget that you ever could. ... Ultimately for me, it's about avoiding a new dark age."

XCOR Aerospace's Jeff Greason explains why he's in the spaceship business.

Like Musk, Greason believes that Mars is in humanity's long-range future.

"While we sit here, debating and quivering with concern over whether we may be we may be raising the temperature of the earth by a fraction of a degree, Mars is sitting there, waiting, begging for us to come and raise its temperature just a few degrees ... and kick it over to a warm wet world where we can live," Greason said. "And it is no more ambitious and no more crazy for us to consider doing that today than it was for our ancestors to consider throwing railroads across the Sierra Nevada, and building huge reservoirs and waterworks to bring water and power to California."

To gain more insights into how Greason thinks commercial space operations could ease our energy woes, or how Musk thinks his real life compares with that of the fictional "Iron Man," take a spin through the full videos.

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