21 Mar 2012

An artist's impression of the SpaceX Dragon capsule landing on Mars, as early as 2018 some say.
An artist's impression of the SpaceX Dragon capsule landing on Mars, as early as 2018 some say.

SpaceX CEO, California entrepreneur, Elon Musk believes he can get the cost of a round trip to Mars to around a half million dollars and has worked out how to do it and possibly get there by 2018.  He says that he will reveal these details later this year or early 2013.

SpaceX is one of NASA's key private commercial partners, one that will be pivotal in getting our astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in years to come.  They expect to give a full demonstration of going to ISS next month.  To do so they use the Falcon 9 launcher and Dragon vessel.

Musk's vision to Mars can be heard in Scott's Legacy, a BBC Radio 4 program or via this player.  

Re-usability is the key

During the discussion, Musk says key technology breakthroughs are dramatically lowering the cost of space access to levels where a mission to Mars will become a realistic financial goal.

Musk envisions re-fueling on Mars though a fulling re-usable system, a key ingredient on a Mars trip, so you don't carry unnecessary fuel and weight.  A reusable system will keep the costs down.  He goes on to say that ultimately such a trip could even be made by the average person with some savings.

Musk goes on to state that such a figure is half a million dollars and unlikely to be the opening price, but one after 10 years or so.

By comparison, NASA is designing its own system for a Mars mission but very few elements in this multi-billion dollar system would be re-usable, with a first manned test around the Moon unlikely until the early 2020s.  The manned mission by NASA to the Red Planet may not happen until the 2030s, optimistically that is.

Still much to prove

SpaceX, now 10 years old, still has much to prove though.  It has only launched a rocket seven times, the first three failed.  The space station tests keep slipping schedule as well.

Despite this, NASA still is thinking big when it comes to SpaceX and Congress is releasing more money in 2013 to bolster commercial development of space systems.  This is a very good sign of things to come, as stated in the past such commercial investment is the key to our future in space.

The Faclon-9

The Falcon-9 heavy vehicle is an important key for SpaceX.  It will be bigger than the one going to ISS next month and can put 53 tons of payload in low-Earth orbit (LEO), more than twice the Space Shuttle.  Musk believes with the heavy lifter he can get the cost at $1000 per pound.  The re-usable nature is the biggest way it will help get costs down, not just in the advancements in its structure or engines.




The Dragon Capsule

Proponents of the Dragon Capsule say that it could use the eight small rocket motors that will be added to escape the Falcon 9, to help it safely land on Mars.  The motors would slow the descent and allow it to land tail-first.  While other engineers question whether the retro-rockets alone are enough.  Past landers have had to rely on parachutes.

Time will tell if these pieces of the puzzle will come together in such a way to get us to Mars, cheaper and sooner than before.  If we can, this will also prove attractive for scientists, who keep having their budgets slashed due to constraints.

Source:  Space.com

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