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SpaceX to Develop a Fully Reusable Launch System — and Elon Musk Wants to Send Humans to Mars

At a speech at the National Press Club on Thursday, SpaceX founder and Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk rolled out SpaceX’s latest leap into the future: Musk and his teams are developing a fully reusable space transportation system. The video above shows how both stages of the two-stage rocket return to Earth and make a soft, powered landing after bringing the Dragon capsule to orbit. Dragon, after docking with the International Space Station, can also undock and return with a powered landing – no parachutes required.

Musk also confirmed that the currently scheduled November or December flight of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule to the space station will likely be delayed due to the failure of a Soyuz rocket carrying a Progress re-supply ship to the ISS on August 24, 2011.

“It actually will likely result in a delay to our launch to the ISS,” Musk said, “and NASA rightly wants to have the appropriate level of astronauts with the right training when we arrive, so it looks like January for the launch to space station, and that is contingent upon the Russians meeting the schedule they’ve currently stating.”

The Russian Space Agency has scheduled Progress launches on October 30, 2011, and January 26, 2012, with potential launches for the manned Soyuz-FG spacecraft on November 12 and December 20, 2011.

Musk assured that this new reusable launch architecture will not impede the ongoing development of the Falcon 9 or Dragon capsule. “This won’t affect our commercial partnership with NASA, it’s just a parallel thing,” Musk said, speaking to a group of journalists in New York. His talk was also webcast.

Another interesting discussion by Musk during his speech was his views on why humanity should become a multi-planet species, and that since Mars is the closest potentially habitable planet, he’d like to send people there. He’s not talking about establishing a small base, but sending large numbers of people to live there permanently. He sees this as “life insurance” for humanity in case something happens to our planet, be it a natural catastrophe or a human-caused event.

He said we should be willing to spend about one quarter of one percent of GDP for this endeavor, and Musk said a ticket price of about $500,000 per per person would likely be affordable for about one person in a million. Since humanity will tip the scales at 8 billion by the time the architecture for living on Mars would be available, 8,000 people could afford to head out to Mars.

Musk then responded to questions from the audience. With the potential of more problems with the Soyuz, could the Dragon be fast-tracked for human rating?

“If the degree of safety required was the same as shuttle, we could launch humans on our next flight, in January,” Musk said. “Dragon currently doesn’t have a launch escape system, and the shuttle didn’t either. But we agree with NASA it is a wise move to have that. It will take us about 2 years, maybe 3 to have a launch escape system, and it will be a significant innovation, as the escape thrusters are bolted in the side of the spacecraft, so can also use it for propulsive landing, so we’ve been talking with NASA about using Dragon for a test to land to on other planets like Mars.”

One interesting note here is that Musk referred to a crew on board Dragon as “biological cargo.”

Musk said the Russian were good partners for NASA in the ISS despite the recent failure of the Progress ship. “The Soyuz is a good vehicle,” Musk said. “But a lot of their expert rocket engineers have retired, and it seems to be much more compelling to go into the oil and gas industry in Russia than the space industry, so that may lead to less reliability in the future.”

Musk also added that, “If you look at Russian rocketry since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been no new developments, no new rockets, and what that means is that soon as that technology is superseded, Russian technology will no longer be viable.”

Musk said that long term, China is going to be a serious competitor. However, he added, “I’m quite confident we can take on China – I’d rather bet on us than China.”


Nancy Atkinson is currently Universe Today's Contributing Editor. Previously she served as UT's Senior Editor and lead writer, and has worked with Astronomy Cast and 365 Days of Astronomy. Nancy is also a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • chef October 1, 2011, 5:39 AM

    looks like a giant p3nis

  • Anonymous October 1, 2011, 5:52 AM

    Well if you understand a picture or a video is worth a thousands words, you’ll understand the reason for the video. If you’re trying to explain what you’re trying to do to the national press club don’t you think this video does the trick? Or do you think trying to explain it in words or with power point is going to do the trick.

    This very well could end up as an epic failure but it doesn’t cost the tax payers a dime. Compared to the $10 billion spent on the canceled Constellation program. I am very fearful the billions about to be spent on the SLS is never going to produce a rocket that actually flies.

    Even if it only has a 10% chance of success the upside is very much worth it. My bet is if it is a manned crew capsule returning to Earth it will splash down in the Ocean for the next 20 years until this kind of propulsive landing is demonstrated to be 99.99% successful. If a rocket stage crashes every 1 out of 10 times it isn’t a big deal. It still allows 1 rocket to be used 10 times (on average).

    For the people who are convinced this will never work, well history seems to forget the people who said something could never be done and writes about the people who over came the impossible and made it possible.

  • SupahDupah October 2, 2011, 8:16 AM

    SpaceX is a company for the future! Congratulations Elon Musk! If I had a billion dollar in venture capital, your company would get it.