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Elon Musk’s Plan: Get Humans to Mars, and Beyond

The mood at the conference was almost as giddy as a rock concert or the launch of a new Apple product, with people lining up for Mr. Musk’s presentation a couple of hours in advance.

Mr. Musk has talked of his “Mars Colonial Transporter,” but a couple of weeks ago, he suggested that its capabilities would be much greater.

During his talk, he called it the Interplanetary Transport System. The booster would include 42 of SpaceX’s new, more powerful Raptor engines.

On Monday, he tweeted a picture of the first test firing of the company’s new Raptor engine that is more powerful than the engines used on the Falcon 9.

Mars has long been the goal of Mr. Musk and SpaceX.

Much of Mr. Musk’s initial wealth came from his tenure as chief executive of PayPal, which he sold to eBay in 2002 for $ 1.5 billion. Afterward, he wanted to undertake a science experiment — to send a greenhouse to Mars and see if Earth plants could grow in Martian dirt. He said the rocket options for launching his project were so lacking that he started SpaceX, headquartered in Hawthorne, Calif.

SpaceX has established a successful business with its workhorse Falcon 9 rocket launching satellites , and by taking cargo — and potentially soon astronauts — to the International Space Station for NASA. But Mr. Musk has stated often that his loftier goal for SpaceX is to get people to Mars, to make humanity a “multi-planetary species” in order to ensure survival in case some calamity like an asteroid strike befell Earth.

The new rocket could be used for even more distant trips, to places like Europa, the icy moon of Jupiter.

“This system really gives you freedom to go anywhere you want in the greater solar system,” he said.

What is less clear is how SpaceX will raise the money needed to bring its Mars dreams to fruition. The new rocket is larger than any of the rockets currently carrying satellites to orbit.

“It’s an excellent question,” said Carissa Bryce Christensen, a managing partner of the Tauri Group, a consulting firm in Alexandria, Va. “In today’s environment, there’s not a particularly obvious market.”

During his talk, Mr. Musk put up a slide titled “Funding.” The first item was “Steal underpants,” a joking reference to a “South Park” episode. He also listed SpaceX’s businesses — launching satellites and sending NASA cargo and astronauts to the space station — and “Kickstarter.”

But he admitted that SpaceX would likely not be able to do it alone. “Ultimately this is going to be a huge public-private partnership,” he said.

NASA is also developing its own giant rocket, the Space Launch System, for eventual human missions to Mars.

So far, SpaceX has received much of the financing for its rocket development from NASA, from contracts to take cargo to and from the International Space Station. The United States Air Force is providing $ 33.7 million for development of the Raptor.

Critics of SpaceX and Mr. Musk question whether the Mars dreams are distracting the company from its more mundane business. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket is currently grounded while investigators try to figure out why one of the rockets on the launchpad exploded this month during fueling before a test firing.

On Friday, the company said the failure appeared to be a large breach in the helium system of the second stage, although what caused the breach is still not known. However, the company said the investigation has ruled out any connection to the failure last year of a Falcon 9 that disintegrated in flight. (That failure was traced to a faulty strut in the second stage, and SpaceX resumed launching later in the year.)

Mr. Musk also faces competition from other billionaires with ambitious space dreams. Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has his own rocket company, Blue Origin, which this month also announced a big new rocket, New Glenn, that approaches in stature the Saturn 5 from NASA’s moon landing years.

At a talk here, Robert Meyerson, Blue Origin’s president, said the aim of New Glenn is to take people to space, although it will also be able to launch satellites. The images the company released showed the satellite-carrying version. But Mr. Meyerson disclosed that “there are other versions that will have a space vehicle on top.”

Mr. Meyerson said that Blue Origin also already has an even larger rocket, to be called New Armstrong, on the drawing board. Mr. Bezos has said his goal is for millions of people to be living in space, although he has not mentioned Mars as a destination.

With Mr. Bezos’s Amazon wealth, Blue Origin faces less pressure to be profitable as quickly as SpaceX, or public companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin that have to answer to shareholders.

NASA is still talking about its Mars ambitions, too. William H. Gerstenmaier, the associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that all of the pieces for a crewed Mars mission are now in development, at least to reach Mars orbit, by sometime in the 2030s and fit within the agency’s existing budget. “We don’t think we’re going to get a big new budget,” he said.

But he admitted that in NASA’s plans, astronauts setting foot on Mars would take longer, probably not until the 2040s.

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