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Elon Musk gazes toward Mars

This comes as his earthbound businesses hit a snag

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By Dana Hull, Bloomberg News

When Elon Musk takes the stage of the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, on Sept. 27, it won’t be to rehash terrestrial concerns such as a fatal Tesla autopilot crash or a poorly received merger proposal.

Instead, the space and electric-car entrepreneur will be talking about realizing his boyhood dream: going to Mars.

Musk’s keynote address, entitled “Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species,” will tackle the technical challenges and “potential architectures for colonizing the Red Planet,” according to organizers. Translation — huge rockets, big spacecraft.

No one has been anticipating the event more eagerly than Musk, who founded Space Exploration Technologies Corp., his rocket-launch company, 14 years ago with the express goal of putting humans on other planets to live and work.

“I think it’s going to sound pretty crazy,” Musk said, referring to his Mars speech, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center last April. He was there celebrating another previously crazy-sounding accomplishment — launching a rocket into space and then landing the 14-story-tall booster on a floating drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. SpaceX has gone on to repeat that feat three more times.

The Mars speech figures to be a welcome distraction for a man who’s been reeling of late. Tesla, which makes electric vehicles and energy-storage products, is blowing through cash as it races to build out a huge battery factory in the Nevada desert and start selling its mass-market Model 3 next year.

Tesla’s bid to acquire SolarCity Corp., a debt-laden installer of rooftop solar panels, is embroiled in controversy over corporate-governance concerns. Musk is CEO of Tesla and the chairman and largest shareholder of SolarCity. Short seller Jim Chanos called the proposed merger, now worth about $2 billion in an all-stock transaction, a “walking insolvency.”

Adding to Musk’s headaches, SpaceX suffered a mystifying setback Sept. 1 when one of its rockets blew apart on the launchpad in Cape Canaveral, Fla., destroying an Israeli communications satellite.

“Turning out to be the most difficult and complex failure we have ever had in 14 years,” Musk said on Twitter, his most potent form of communication.

Such earthbound woes aside, going to Mars is no longer the stuff of science fiction. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has its own “Journey to Mars” program, which calls for sending American astronauts there in the 2030s. Lockheed Martin has a NASA contract to build a Mars-orbiting space station.

And Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said, if elected, one goal of her administration would be to “advance our ability to make human exploration of Mars a reality.”

Mars exploration got an enormous boost in August 2012, when NASA’s Curiosity Rover landed. The robotic vehicle continues to transmit breathtaking, high-resolution photographs of the dune- and butte-filled landscape, to the delight of scientists and Curiosity’s 3.4 million Twitter followers. Curiosity is exploring a crater that once held an ancient lake, proving Mars had a watery environment and, possibly, microbial life.

“The enthusiasm and momentum for sending humans to Mars is higher than it’s ever been,” said Ashwin Vasavada, the Curiosity project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Technologically it doesn’t seem that far out of reach. We can see a path.”

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