NASA Estimates SpaceX 2018 Mars Mission Will Cost Only $300 Million

Ever since Musk founded SpaceX is 2002, with the intention of eventually colonizing Mars, every move he has made has been the subject of attention. And for the past two years, a great deal of this attention has been focused specifically on the development of the Falcon Heavy rocket and the Dragon 2 capsule – the components with which Musk hopes to mount a lander mission to Mars in 2018.

Among other things, there is much speculation about how much this is going to cost. Given that one of SpaceX’s guiding principles is making space exploration cost-effective, just how much money is Musk hoping to spend on this important step towards a crewed mission? As it turns out, NASA produced some estimates at a recent meeting, which indicated that SpaceX is spending over $300 million on its proposed Mars mission.

These estimates were given during a NASA Advisory Council meeting, which took place in Cleveland on July 26th between members of the technology committee. During the course of the meeting, James L. Reuter – the Deputy Associate Administrator for Programs at NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate – provided an overview of NASA’s agreement with SpaceX, which was signed in December of 2014 and updated this past April.

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX
Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

In accordance with this agreement, NASA will be providing support for the company’s plan to send an uncrewed Dragon 2 capsule (named “Red Dragon”) to Mars by May of 2018. Intrinsic to this mission is the plan to conduct a propulsive landing on Mars, which would test the Dragon 2‘s SuperDraco Descent Landing capability. Another key feature of this mission will involve using the Falcon Heavy to deploy the capsule.

The terms of this agreement do not involve the transfer of funds, but entails active collaboration that would be to the benefit parties. As Reuters indicated in his presentation, which NASA’s Office of Communications shared with Universe Today via email (and will be available on the STMD’s NASA page soon):

“Building on an existing no-funds-exchanged collaboration with SpaceX, NASA is providing technical support for the firm’s plan to attempt to land an uncrewed Dragon 2 spacecraft on Mars. This collaboration could provide valuable entry, descent and landing (EDL) data to NASA for our journey to Mars, while providing support to American industry. We have similar agreements with dozens of U.S. commercial, government, and non-profit partners.”

Further to this agreement is NASA’s commitment to a budget of $32 million over the next four years, the timetable of which were partially-illustrated in the presentation: “NASA will contribute existing agency resources already dedicated to [Entry, Descent, Landing] work, with an estimated value of approximately $32M over four years with approximately $6M in [Fiscal Year] 2016.”

Diagram showing SpaceX's planned "Red Dragon" mission to Mars. Credit: NASA/SpaceX
Diagram showing SpaceX’s planned “Red Dragon” mission to Mars. Credit: NASA/SpaceX

According to Article 21 of the Space Act Agreement between NASA and SpaceX, this will include providing SpaceX with: “Deep space communications and telemetry; Deep space navigation and trajectory design; Entry, descent and landing system analysis and engineering support; Mars entry aerodynamic and aerothermal database development; General interplanetary mission advice and hardware consultation; and planetary protection consultation and advice.”

For their part, SpaceX has not yet disclosed how much their Martian mission plan will cost. But according to Jeff Foust of SpaceNews, Reuter provided a basic estimate of about $300 million based on a 10 to 1 assessment of NASA’s own financial commitment: “They did talk to us about a 10-to-1 arrangement in terms of cost: theirs 10, ours 1,” said Reuter. “I think that’s in the ballpark.”

As for why NASA has chosen to help SpaceX make this mission happen, this was also spelled out in the course of the meeting. According to Reuter’s presentation: “NASA conducted a fairly high-level technical feasibility assessment and determined there is a reasonable likelihood of mission success that would be enhanced with the addition of NASA’s technical expertise.”

Such a mission would provide NASA with valuable landing data, which would prove very useful when mounting its crewed mission in the 2030s. Other items discussed included NASA-SpaceX collaborative activities for the remainder of 2016 – which involved a “[f]ocus on system design, based heavily on Dragon 2 version used for ISS crew and cargo transportation”.

Artistic concepts of the Falcon Heavy rocket (left) and the Dragon capsule deployed on the surface of Mars (right). Credit: SpaceX
Artistic concepts of the Falcon Heavy rocket (left) and the Dragon capsule deployed on the surface of Mars (right). Credit: SpaceX

It was also made clear that the Falcon Heavy, which SpaceX is close to completing, will serve as the launch vehicle. SpaceX intends to conduct its first flight test (Falcon Heavy Demo Flight 1) of the heavy-lifter in December of 2016. Three more test flights are scheduled to take place between 2017 and the launch of the Mars lander mission, which is still scheduled for May of 2018.

In addition to helping NASA prepare for its mission to the Red Planet, SpaceX’s progress with both the Falcon Heavy and Dragon 2 are also crucial to Musk’s long-term plan for a crewed mission to Mars – the architecture of which has yet to be announced. They are also extremely important in the development of the Mars Colonial Transporter, which Musk plans to use to create a permanent settlement on Mars.

And while $300 million is just a ballpark estimate at this juncture, it is clear that SpaceX will have to commit considerable resources to the enterprise. What’s more, people must keep in mind that this would be merely the first in a series of major commitments that the company will have to make in order to mount a crewed mission by 2024, to say nothing of building a Martian colony!

In the meantime, be sure to check out this animation of the Crew Dragon in flight:

Further Reading: NASA STMD
TOTH: SpaceNews

SpaceX Announces Plan to Launch Private Dragon Mission to Mars in 2018

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018.  Credit: SpaceX
Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX announced plans today, April 27, for the first ever private mission to Mars which involves sending an uncrewed version of the firms Dragon spacecraft to accomplish a propulsive soft landing – and to launch it as soon as 2018 including certain technical assistance from NASA.

Under a newly signed space act agreement with NASA, the agency will provide technical support to SpaceX with respect to Mars landing technologies for the new spacecraft known as a ‘Red Dragon’ and possibly also for science activities.

“SpaceX is planning to send Dragons to Mars as early as 2018,” the company posted in a brief announcement today on Facebook and other social media about the history making endeavor.

The 2018 commercial Mars mission involves launching the ‘Red Dragon’ – also known as Dragon 2 – on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It’s a prelude to eventual human missions.

The Red Dragon initiative is a commercial endeavor that’s privately funded by SpaceX and does not include any funding from NASA. The agreement with NASA specifically states there is “no-exchange-of-funds.”

As of today, the identity and scope of any potential science payload is undefined and yet to be determined.

Hopefully it will include a diverse suite of exciting research instruments from NASA, or other entities, such as high powered cameras and spectrometers characterizing the Martian surface, atmosphere and environment.

SpaceX CEO and billionaire founder Elon Musk has previously stated his space exploration goals involve helping to create a Mars colony which would ultimately lead to establishing a human ‘City on Mars.’

Musk is also moving full speed ahead with his goal of radically slashing the cost of access to space by recovering a pair of SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage boosters via successful upright propulsive landings on land and at sea – earlier this month and in Dec. 2015.

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018.  Credit: SpaceX
Artists concept for sending uncrewed SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to land propulsively on Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

The 2018 liftoff campaign marks a significant step towards fulfilling Musk’s Red Planet vision. But we’ll have to wait another 5 months for concrete details.

“Red Dragon missions to Mars will also help inform the overall Mars colonization architecture that SpaceX will reveal later this year,” SpaceX noted.

Musk plans to reveal the details of the Mars colonization architecture later this year at the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) being held in Guadalajara, Mexico from September 26 to 30, 2016.

Landing on Mars is not easy. To date only NASA has successfully soft landed probes on Mars that returned significant volumes of useful science data.

In the meantime a few details about the SpaceX Red Dragon have emerged.

The main goal is to propulsively land something 5-10 times the size of anything previously landed before.

“These missions will help demonstrate the technologies needed to land large payloads propulsively on Mars,” SpaceX further posted.

NASA’s 1 ton Curiosity rover is the heaviest spaceship to touchdown on the Red Planet to date.

Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018.  Credit: SpaceX
Artists concept for sending SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018. Credit: SpaceX

As part of NASA’s agency wide goal to send American astronauts on a human ‘Journey to Mars’ in the 2030s, NASA will work with SpaceX on some aspects of the Red Dragon initiative to further the agency’s efforts.

According to an amended space act agreement signed yesterday jointly by NASA and SpaceX officials – that originally dates back to November 2014 – this mainly involves technical support from NASA and exchanging entry, descent and landing (EDL) technology, deep space communications, telemetry and navigation support, hardware advice, and interplanetary mission and planetary protection advice and consultation.

“We’re particularly excited about an upcoming SpaceX project that would build upon a current “no-exchange-of-funds” agreement we have with the company,” NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman wrote in a NASA blog post today.

“In exchange for Martian entry, descent, and landing data from SpaceX, NASA will offer technical support for the firm’s plan to attempt to land an uncrewed Dragon 2 spacecraft on Mars.”

“This collaboration could provide valuable entry, descent and landing data to NASA for our journey to Mars, while providing support to American industry,” NASA noted in a statement.

The amended agreement with NASA also makes mention of sharing “Mars Science Data.”

As of today, the identity, scope and weight of any potential science payload is undefined and yet to be determined.

Perhaps it could involve a suite of science instruments from NASA, or other entities, such as cameras and spectrometers characterizing various aspects of the Martian environment.

In the case of NASA, the joint agreement states that data collected with NASA assets is to be released within a period not to exceed 6 months and published where practical in scientific journals.

The Red Dragon envisioned for blastoff to the Red Planet as soon as 2018 would launch with no crew on board on a critical path finding test flight that would eventually pave the way for sending humans to Mars – and elsewhere in the solar system.

“Red Dragon Mars mission is the first test flight,” said Musk.

“Dragon 2 is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system.”

However, the Dragon 2 alone is far too small for a round trip mission to Mars – lasting some three years or more.

“But wouldn’t recommend transporting astronauts beyond Earth-moon region,” tweeted Musk.

“Wouldn’t be fun for longer journeys. Internal volume ~size of SUV.”

Furthermore, for crewed missions it would also have to be supplemented with additional modules for habitation, propulsion, cargo, science, communications and more. Think ‘The Martian’ movie to get a realistic idea of the complexity and time involved.

Red Dragon’s blastoff from KSC pad 39A is slated to take place during the Mars launch window opening during April and May 2018.

The inaugural liftoff of the Falcon Heavy is currently scheduled for late 2016 after several years postponement.

If all goes well, Red Dragon could travel to Mars at roughly the same time as NASA’s next Mission to Mars – namely the InSight science lander, which will study the planets deep interior with a package of seismometer and heat flow instruments.

InSight’s launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V is targeting a launch window that begins May 5, 2018, with a Mars landing scheduled for Nov. 26, 2018. Liftoff was delayed from this year due to a flaw in the French-built seismometer.

SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft launches to Mars on SpaceX Falcon Heavy as soon as 2018 in this artists comcept.  Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Red Dragon spacecraft launches to Mars on SpaceX Falcon Heavy as soon as 2018 in this artists comcept. Credit: SpaceX

Whoever wants to land on Mars also has to factor in the relevant International treaties regarding ‘Planetary Protection’ requirements.

Wherever the possibility for life exists, the worlds space agency’s who are treaty signatories, including NASA, are bound to adhere to protocols limiting contamination by life forms from Earth.

SpaceX intends to take planetary protection seriously. Under the joint agreement, SpaceX is working with relevant NASA officials to ensure proper planetary protection procedures are followed. One of the areas of collaboration with NASA is for them to advise SpaceX in the development a Planetary Protection Plan (PPP) and assist with the implementation of a PPP including identifying existing software/tools.

Red Dragon is derived from the SpaceX crew Dragon vehicle currently being developed under contract for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) to transport American astronauts back and forth to low Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS).

SpaceX and Boeing were awarded commercial crew contracts from NASA back in September 2014.

Both firms hope to launch unmanned and manned test flights of their SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft to the ISS starting sometime in 2017.

The crew Dragon is also an advanced descendent of the original unmanned cargo Dragon that has ferried tons of science experiments and essential supplies to the ISS since 2012.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship are set to liftoff on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Jan. 6, 2015. File photo.  Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo ship are set to liftoff on a resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) from launch pad 40 at Cape Canaveral, Florida on Jan. 6, 2015. File photo. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

To enable propulsive landings, SpaceX recently conducted hover tests using a Dragon 2 equipped with eight side-mounted SuperDraco engines at their development testing facility in McGregor, TX.

These are “Key for Mars landing,” SpaceX wrote.

“We are closer than ever before to sending American astronauts to Mars than anyone, anywhere, at any time has ever been,” Newman states.

SpaceX Dragon 2 crew vehicle, powered by eight SuperDraco engines, conducts propulsive hover test at the company’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas.  Credit: SpaceX
SpaceX Dragon 2 crew vehicle, powered by eight SuperDraco engines, conducts propulsive hover test at the company’s rocket development facility in McGregor, Texas. Credit: SpaceX

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Mars Colony Will Have To Wait, Says NASA Scientists

Establishing a human settlement on Mars has been the fevered dream of space agencies for some time. Long before NASA announced its “Journey to Mars” – a plan that outlined the steps that need to be taken to mount a manned mission by the 2030s – the agency’s was planning how a crewed mission could lead to the establishing of stations on the planet’s surface. And it seems that in the coming decades, this could finally become a reality.

But when it comes to establishing a permanent colony – another point of interest when it comes to Mars missions – the coming decades might be a bit too soon. Such was the message during a recent colloquium hosted by NASA’s Future In-Space Operations (FISO) working group. Titled “Selecting a Landing Site for Humans on Mars”, this presentation set out the goals for NASA’s manned mission in the coming decades.

Continue reading “Mars Colony Will Have To Wait, Says NASA Scientists”