SpaceX: Mars Is Our Future

by Jason Rhian on August 10, 2011

Could an image similar to this be in our near future? If Elon Musk has his way - the answer is yes. Falcon 9 Image Courtesy of SpaceX - Mars Image Courtesy of NASA

Elon Musk is not one to rest on prior accomplishments; he likes to continue to push forward – his plans for the future of commercial space flight reflect that philosophy. He has stated his plans to begin crewed flights to Mars. Musk thinks that humans can set foot on the red planet within the next 10 to 20 years. He stated that the rationale behind mankind becoming a multi-planet species should be obvious to all.

“Ultimately, it is vital that we are on a path to becoming a multi-planet species,” said Musk. “If we don’t then our future isn’t very bright, we’ll simply be hanging out on Earth until some calamity claims us.”

SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft is set to head to the International Space Station this December. SpaceX has plans to use the spacecraft in potential Martian missions. Image Credit: SpaceX

Musk made the announcement of his intent during this month’s meeting of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) that was held in San Diego, California.

SpaceX would presumably utilize the Falcon Heavy rocket, which is slated to conduct its first launch either at the end of 2012 or the beginning of 2013. Whereas the Falcon 9 features nine engines in its first stage, the Falcon Heavy, being a triple-body design similar of the Delta IV Heavy – would utilize 27 Merlin engines. It is estimated that the Falcon Heavy could send 12 to 15 metric tons to orbit.

The proposed Falcon Heavy is scheduled to launch either some time next year or in the early part of 2013. Image Credit: SpaceX

The spacecraft that would fly any mission to the red planet would theoretically be an offshoot of the vehicle that SpaceX sent to orbit last December, the Dragon. In fact the craft/project has already been dubbed the “Red Dragon.”

NASA currently plans to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars sometime in the 2030s. If SpaceX is successful, this would be far faster than what the space agency has stated it is capable of accomplishing.

SpaceX has had a number of successes lately. It has successfully launched two of its heavy-lift Falcon 9 rockets, the second of which carried the first of the company’s Dragon spacecraft to orbit. Shortly thereafter the company recovered the vehicle as it bobbed safely in the Pacific Ocean after returning safely to Earth. The feat of sending spacecraft to and from orbit had only been accomplished by nations before this.

The NewSpace firm is working to speed up the timeline of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contract, worth an estimated $1.6 billion, that the company has with NASA. SpaceX has requested and technically received permission to send the next Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) this December. Originally this flight would have been a flyby of the orbiting laboratory to test out several of the spacecraft’s key operating systems. However, one of the ISS partners, Russia, has yet to sign off on this plan however.

Musk wants to see his "Red Dragon" on the surface of Mars within the next 20 years. Image Credit: SpaceX

The California-based company was also tapped to participate in NASA’s Crew Commercial Development contract (phase 2) – more commonly known as CCDev-02. SpaceX was selected along with Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and Blue Origin. Each firm was awarded a different cash sum to accomplish the proposals that they had set forth.

SpaceX is a company whose scope appears to be rapidly expanding. The announcement at the AIAA by Musk appears to highlight this fact. Mars has long been the destination of choice for many within the space community. Funding and logistics woes have delayed the first manned mission from ever taking place. It remains to be explained how the mission will be flown, will it be unilateral, multi-national or some other mixture? Will private industry take the lead? For his part Musk has thrown down the gauntlet – “Red Dragon” could fly as early as 2018.

SpaceX toured the Dragon spacecraft that flew to orbit this past December around the country in order to demonstrate the company's growing capabilities. Photo Credit: Jason Rhian

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