How SpaceX’s Mars Goal Puts Tesla Gigafactory Into Perspective

The Tesla Gigafactory, a 1,000-acre lithium-ion battery manufacturing and reprocessing plant, promises to be the biggest battery facility the world has ever seen. Its purpose — to dramatically reduce the cost of lithium-ion battery packs for use in electric cars and consumer devices — is no mean feat.

Building a Gigafactory is child's play: considering what else Musk wants to achieve.

Building a Gigafactory is child’s play: considering what else Musk wants to achieve.

But when it comes to the grand scale of things, building the Gigafactory and making mass-market, affordable battery packs for long-range electric cars is far easier than coordinating a manned mission to Mars.

That’s the verdict of Elon Musk, CEO of both Tesla Motors [NASDAQ:TSLA] and rocket company SpaceX. A man on a mission, Musk not only wants the world to ditch gasoline and fossil fuels in favour of electric cars and renewable energy, but he wants to be the man to commercialise the space industry.

Building a permanent base on Mars is one of his goals.

So when a reporter from CNBC asked Musk yesterday which was harder — a manned mission to Mars or building an affordable electric car battery pack — Musk’s answer was pretty predictable to anyone with more than a passing interest in space exploration.

“Probably Mars,” Musk said.

Turning the world electric is far easier than going to Mars -- and mankind wants that, too.

Turning the world electric is far easier than going to Mars — and mankind wants that, too.

If we sound unsurprised at Musk’s reaction it’s because we’re not surprised at his reaction. Space exploration of any sort is still a costly business. Despite SpaceX slashing the cost of getting unmanned payloads to the International Space Station, sending people to Mars is a completely different game.

Aside from designing a whole new vehicle, launch strategy and propulsion system to relatively near earth orbit flights, a manned flight to Mars would push humanity to the kind of financial and physical limits that we’ve never before seen. It’s a long way to Mars. A very long way.

Then there’s cost. The nearest thing we have to a Mars mission to base costs on is the 1971-2010 shuttle program. While it was active, NASA spent $192 billion on it. Tesla’s Gigafactory will cost between $4 billion and $5 billion to build, stock and start production.

Musk's goals are much larger than the Model X...

Musk’s goals are much larger than the Model X…

Speaking last week, Musk admitted that Tesla Motors doesn’t have anywhere near the market share it needs to bring about a global change in personal transportation. In order to bring about a global change in the way we fuel our cars, Musk argued, making Tesla’s patents open source for other manufacturers to adopt and build upon was the only logical choice.

When JFK gave his famous speech in 1962 setting out the goals of the Apollo program, the space race — and the human civilisation — was pushed to achieve things which it never thought possible before.

The goal to reach Mars is even larger, even tougher to achieve. It’s something Musk says will be possible in ten to twelve years’ time.

Building the world’s largest electric car factory — and in turn, effecting the mass-market move to electric cars — is child’s play in comparison.

Which causes us to ask one simple question: why is it taking the world so long to realise?

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