“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.”
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 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.
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.