Mars 2018?

SpaceX dropped a news bombshell today, via tweets from Elon and other sources. Here’s the story from Eric Berger, Alan Boyle, Sarah Fecht, Loren Grush, and Jay Bennett. It’s a sample return from Mars using a “Red Dragon” (Dragon 2).

My thoughts: 2018 is ambitious, but not undoable. It depends on getting FH going this year or next, and what else they’ve been working on behind the scenes. I assume that 2018 is the next window that they think it’s possible to be ready for.

I’d like to see details. For instance, will Raptor be involved, or will it be an all-kerosene mission? The CONOPs chart at Popular Mechanics shows it as dual FH launch. I’d bet that they could do it with a single one if they bought a Centaur from ULA, but SpaceX doesn’t like to depend on others for space transportation. I assume this is part of the larger announcement they’ll be making in Guadalajara in September.

In other Mars news, NASA has just released what looks to be an interesting document on advanced technologies for Mars settlement. None of which are seriously funding (including the Senate cutting funds for Mars landing technology this week so it could shovel more good money after bad at SLS).

[Update a few minutes later]

Here’s the relevant Space Act Agreement between SpaceX and NASA, including how to deal with planetary protection protocols.

[Update a few minutes later]

Eric Berger notes the irony of the Senate cutting the tech budget for Mars landing in the same week as a private Mars-landing announcement. So it can fund a giant rocket that isn’t needed to go to Mars.

[Another update]

But wait! I thought private companies couldn’t afford space exploration!

[Update in the afternoon]

Here’s the story from Christian Davenport at the WaPo.

[Update a while later]

And here’s the story from Alex Knapp.

48 thoughts on “Mars 2018?”

  1. Dos XX started their new ad campaign a bit early (and it was only one way anyway…). I’m wondering at what point NASA starts recognizing that they are not only redundant to what can be done in the private sector, but woefully behind the private sector (at least in the manned side).

    1. Easy, there. SpaceX hasn’t put people in orbit and brought them back yet. One step at a time.

        1. This is going to evolve just like Inspiration Mars. Start out saying they don’t need government funding then realize it’s a lot more expensive than making a public relations announcement and then look to the government to pony up some money. Doing a Mars mission is more than just the cost of building and launching the spacecraft; there is the matter of paying for and allocating time on the Deep Space Network and other resources.

          Space X’s dilemma is the favor they currently have in the White House may not translate to the next Administration. The new Administration might not be so keen about allocating government funds to a private mission or even be willing to grant a launch license.

          1. DSN time can be arranged. As several stories have noted, NASA gets a lot of benefit from this mission. The FAA has to have a reason to deny a launch license; it can’t do it on a whim from the White House. No reason to think they’ll be any less “in favor” with the next administration than they are with the current one.

  2. It’s an ambitious goal. SpaceX doesn’t usually deal with deadlines as unforgiving as Earth-Mars orbital dynamics. They’d have an easier time schedule-wise starting with Dragon landings on the Moon, but Mars is clearly Musk’s passion.

    I’m curious about they are going to pay for this. Is the idea that SpaceX will fund it out of their R&D budget, as a loss-leader for future NASA Mars contracts? Might NASA chip in some money and/or technical assistance in exchange for data and putting their own payloads in the Dragon?

    Certainly, if they pull it off it should raise questions in Congress on whether and how NASA should integrate Red Dragon into their Mars roadmap.

    1. –Jim
      April 27, 2016 at 10:27 AM

      It’s an ambitious goal. SpaceX doesn’t usually deal with deadlines as unforgiving as Earth-Mars orbital dynamics. They’d have an easier time schedule-wise starting with Dragon landings on the Moon, but Mars is clearly Musk’s passion.–
      I was thinking that also.
      I think SpaceX should first put the Dragon in high earth orbit so that it’s ready to go for the Mars-Earth window.
      So starting from EML-1, the lower the perigee, to then do the Mars trajectory at low earth orbit distance. And they would be doing another “first” by doing this. And should the way future Mars exploration and settlement is done.

    2. The reporting is that it’s a tech transfer only, no money deal with NASA. It must require a major investment on SpaceX’s part; FH launches go for $90m retail, and the Red Dragon development and operations costs will be substantial. But if it helps break NASA out of its “LEO is for commercial contracts, BEO is for traditional NASA contracting” mindset it could set SpaceX up for future billion dollar contract awards.

      1. Yes, the word “nonreimbursed” appears prominently in the Space Act Agreement amendment document. SpaceX is doing this one on its own dime.

        The deal, it seems, is that SpaceX instruments the Red Dragon to a fare-thee-well and shares all the data with NASA. NASA, for its part, let’s SpaceX use the Deep Space Network to send said data back to Earth, plus it gets to use its extant fleet of Mars orbiters to watch the EDL process and share that data with SpaceX.

        Your speculation about future billion dollar contracts with NASA for Mars expedition assistance is plausible in the following ways:

        1) NASA doesn’t really have a Mars expedition plan worthy of the name. This allows SpaceX a lot of lattitude to offer helpful suggestions.

        2) To the extent NASA has a plan, it’s based on DRM 5, which needs 7 – 9 SLS launches to mount in even minimal form. That’s well over a decade worth of missions at SLS’s anticipated launch cadence.

        3) Most of these launches would be to lift propellant, supplies and lander and hab hardware. SpaceX already has considerable experience lifting freight off-planet. An enhanced Falcon Heavy with a Raptor-powered, fully reusable upper stage could support a much higher launch cadence at a much lower cost than SLS.

        4) There’s also the BFR-MCT waiting in the wings. Depending upon what is revealed in Guadalajara in September, this may form the basis for an even more attractive freight-hauling alternative to SLS for the Mars mission.

        5) The first crewed Mars mission could well turn out to be a mostly SpaceX show with maybe one or two SLS-loads of crew and hardware thrown in as a sop to the Old Guard.

      2. NASA has this tendency to only want new spacecraft. There are at least two Dragon V2 flights scheduled for next year plus the in-flight abort test. Perhaps SpaceX will take one of the used capsules and send it to Mars. The one used for the in-flight abort test might be the best candidate. As for the cost of a Falcon Heavy, there’s the price they say they’ll charge others and what it actually costs the company. We have no idea what their costs are but it’s bound to be considerably less than $90 million.

        This is a NET 2018 plan. Launching in 2020 is much more likely. There’s an awful lot to do to get all of this ready in only two years.

        I wonder if they’re going to optimize the Super Draco thrusters for Mars. The reported Isp is only 240 seconds. If they can increase the nozzles without interfering with the reentry aerodynamics, they might be able to get closer to 300 seconds.

    3. [How] to pay for this?

      Elon has been lobbying NASA for years to use his landers for NASA missions. This announcement may just be a goad?

  3. I’ll note that it isn’t necessary to do a sample/return as a first mission. A successful soft-landing of a Red Dragon, even if it were never to return would still generate enormous street cred and program momentum. And add a unique private space monument on Mars.

  4. The rate of SpaceX’s progress is staggering, even if they extend the deadline a couple of years.

    Free Market – 1, Gov’t sponsored – 0

    And yet we still believe gov’t sponsored health care is somehow superior.

    1. It’s possible that the return trip could launch much earlier, using aerobraking a Earth allows much faster transits with an only slightly higher delta V.

      Maybe someone more familiar with such things could share.

    2. I don’t think any return is planned for this mission. One of the linked stories conflates this mission with the Red Dragon sample return notion floated by Ames last year, but that doesn’t seem to be what this announcement is about.

      1. That wouldn’t be politic right now. SpaceX is trying to avoid making SLS look bad at least until it has its crew contracts securely in place and Falcon Heavy is flying.

  5. Interesting indeed!

    2018 is indeed the next Mars launch window. It’s centered on April 30th, 2018, to be exact. The one before it centers on March 11th of this year. The 2018 launch would put arrival in mid to late January, 2019.

    The big question though, is can SpaceX match the SLS program with a voyage like this? The answer is clearly no, because there’s no sign of a twitter hashtag yet, and as we know, it takes billions to develop a twitter hashtag such as #journeytomars.

  6. Very cool.

    I’d also like to see a manned lunar orbital mission in 2018 to mark Apollo 8’s 50th anniversary….

    1. I’ve always said that the first Falcon Heavy flight (assuming they don’t have an actual paying customer) should send an unmanned Dragon on a circumlunar flight. That would be great PR and would show the general public that we’re not as far from being able to go back to the moon as they think.

      A Mars flight in 2018 sounds a tad ambitious, especially since nether Falcon Heavy nor Dragon 2 have yet flown.

      1. Two years prior to the July 1969 landing on the moon neither the Apollo spacecraft nor the Saturn V had ever flown.

  7. It’s worth nothing that the SpaceX announcement today wasn’t for a sample return mission. It was for a Mars landing test mission. They’ll have some instruments on-board but the point is to demonstrate the landing method works.

    1. That makes significant sense to me. After carefully reviewing the OP article referenced, in the Ames sample/return proposal the return vehicle would be contained within what would otherwise have to be a heavily modified Dragon 2. Maybe a non-crewed Dragon with internal RV would be a Red Dragon variant for return for crewed missions to be launched later. It would make tremendous sense to have the RV safely down before sending people on a follow-up. That means there would be also a crewed variant of Red Dragon intended to perform solely as a lander and permanent surface habit. In this scenario you get a sample/return mission almost for free as a side effect. Also explains the need for 2 Falcon launches for that mission. The second one is for “simple” recovery of the return vehicle. It’s not clear to me why that would need an F9H vs just an F9….

        1. If the RV is contained with a Red Dragon, begs the question of how many crew it can “contain”. Likely would need >1 RDRV’s to bring back say a crew of 7 from the Martian surface, which is potentially what a single RDLV/H could land on the surface if its not modified too much over a normal Dragon 2. I haven’t worked the numbers on that…

          1. Also assumes there is likely a trans-hab vehicle in orbit around Mars for the RDRV to dock with before beginning the return leg. The RDRV itself is going to be tiny, tiny…

            A trans-hab vehicle, starting life as a new LEO space station would be a wonderful NASA project. Unlike the SLS…

          2. “A trans-hab vehicle, starting life as a new LEO space station would be a wonderful NASA project.”

            SpaceX just delivered the Bigelow module to the ISS. That’s the start of your new LEO space station(s).

  8. Reminds me of the Project Selene and Project Deimos proposals from Philip Bono from Douglas.

  9. That leaves the Dragon on Mars for 15 months.

    No, the Dragon stays on mars. It will bring a small sample return vehicle probably provided by NASA and probably not on the first flight. Also there seems to be some confusion about red Dragon and Dragon 2; which are distinct vehicles.

    They don’t need Raptor for this. The first model FH can do the job.

    Dragon 2 doesn’t carry enough fuel or is wide enough to land on mars. So expect the announcement of a new lander.

    1. Dragon 2, according to NASA Ames research center, can land on Mars with at least a ton of payload;

      Essentially, aerodynamic drag slows it enough (to low supersonic) to allow for propulsive landing.
      IMHO a few modifications could increase the payload capacity a bit. The biggest would be extra fuel for the superdracos.

      I have to note that SpaceX’s announcement said “as soon as 2018” so my guess is 2020 (the following launch window).

  10. Well at first was thinking this more pr bluster, and very unlikely. Since Space X haven’t event flown a Falcon Heavy or a Dragon 2 yet.

    Now I actually see this as a modestly expensive proof of concept/ test for Propulsive landing on land. Looking at the current plans for Dragon 2 seems like first real flight will be 2017 and will be using water landing and parachutes. So instead of fighting with NASA and other government entities to test land landings they will do it on Mars and in the process loosen regulatory/political roadblocks for earth landings.

    Great thing to tell the not quite so technically bright, that they can land this 50 or so million miles away on Mars with very good accuracy why can’t they do it here on Earth, even though a Earth landing for propulsive landing method is marginally more difficult.

    A assumption on my part but I assuming water landed Dragon2 won’t be reusable or least not with out a significantly more costly refurbishment. So It in Space x interest to get land landing sooner than later and the pr boost won’t hurt.

    In the end cost them a Dragon 2 capsule, some modifications to the Dragon 2, a orbital transfer stage and a Falcon Heavy launch. I even venture to guess the Falcon heavy launch will be a reused one.

    I Understand that Mars need more fuel for delta V to slow down with less atmospheric breaking. Though Ken why wouldn’t the Dragon 2 be wide enough to land on Mars?

      1. I’m guessing that the Lexington Institute would consider the cone of shame too risky.

        On a related note, I’m starting to suspect who GAO consulted on the notion that lack of a seat on Dragon was risky.

      2. Ken my apologizes but reading the old post of yours, and finding the original version of the Mars One website that you linked to
        (Which has some dated SpaceX estimates highlighting reliability of dates given by Space X, the Heavy would be in testing by 2013 and certainly available for Mars One needs by 2016).
        You seem to take the comment that Mars One needing a larger lander, to imply they need it for aero-breaking? I am having trouble coming to that conclusion and not that Mars One needs a larger vehicle and volume for carrying the assets that Mars Ones needs to carry to the ground. And the paper that CJ linked to by John Karcz states only modification required is the removal of berthing equipment and adding long range communication equipment and propulsive landing at supersonic speeds. Which I find slightly hard to believe but put my faith to the expert on that.

        Another benefit that SpaceX get from this which I didn’t understand/appreciate yesterday, was is this is truly a show case of the immense power and throw of a Falcon Heavy, has there been anything launched directly to outside of earth orbit as heavy as a Dragon 2? The MSL space craft is little over 1/2 half the weight and the lander is significantly less. The Cassini is a 1/3 the weight and a shorter initial throw. This little job could position Dragon 2 and Falcon heavy as the Tacoma Pickup truck of the solar system. Depending on how much extra mass, but no need to design a spacecraft/satellite, the dragon can put the payload on the ground nearly anywhere in the solar system or place a microsat in orbit or might even launch sats into orbit from the planet it sits on if you so inclined. Truly put NASA out of the rocket business and even internal solar system transportation business.

        1. They seem to have since posting, edited the links I linked to that gave me that wider Dragon variation. What seems to have happened is they determined a different landing profile would do the trick safely.

          The big advantage Dragon 2 has is low mass. Well within what FH could send pretty much anywhere. Add to that reusability and this is going to be an exciting decade.

  11. I hate to be a wet blanket, but how can Space X sterilize the outside of the Dragon when it has to sit out in the Florida air?

    1. I’m just wondering if they can meet the standards used by JPL for Mars probes without radically increasing the costs and delays of building a Dragon, or more accurately, will NASA or some other organization concerned with contamination throw up a big red flag that will delay the mission?

  12. Ed Minchau
    April 28, 2016 at 8:27 AM

    SpaceX just delivered the Bigelow module to the ISS. That’s the start of your new LEO space station(s).

    Well yes and no. Yes in the sense that it’s a good start as a technology demonstrator, but no in the sense that it’s in the wrong orbit for a trans-hab vehicle and no in the sense that it needs (obviously) to be a free flyer from ISS.

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