A SpaceX Mission to Mars?
Elon Musk has always been pretty open about his ultimate ambition: to set foot on Mars. He even founded a company, SpaceX, to fulfill this wildly ambitious goal.
In setting up a space-faring venture, Musk basically catapulted out of the realm of corporate rivalry. He was competing with governments at that point.
You see, NASA had retired its space shuttle in 2011. Since then, its astronauts have used the Russian “Soyuz” spacecraft to reach the International Space Station (ISS).
However, SpaceX will be taking over that role sometime next year. The company has secured a $2.6-billion contract with NASA to ferry American astronauts to the ISS, proving once again that the private sector is capable of extraordinary things. (Source: “SpaceX Gets Huge Contract for its First Manned Space Flight,” Fortune, November 20, 2015.)
SpaceX has become a symbol of innovation. The company even built a reusable rocket to try and slash the cost of space travel. Late last year, the company succeeded in landing the reusable rocket on land and they did it again on a ship this year.
It was unbelievable to watch. Reusable rockets would completely change the economics of space travel, clearing the way for more commercial exploration.
SpaceX is already a cash-positive company. With more than $5.0 billion worth of flights booked on the manifest, Elon Musk has already turned satellite launches and cargo runs into a profitable business.
But it takes $60.0 million to build the “Falcon 9” rocket. That is a needlessly heavy upfront cost, especially since fuel only costs $200,000 per flight. There might be some extra maintenance costs for reusing rockets, but savings will stretch into the tens of millions of dollars.
It would also allow SpaceX to pursue some more “moonshot” ideas, like going to Mars.
It’s an open secret that Elon Musk has his eyes fixed on the Red Planet. He’s on record saying, “I think it would be great to be born on Earth and to die on Mars. Just hopefully not at the point of impact.” (Source: “Elon Musk and the Giving Pledge,” The Economist, May 21, 2012.)
But before SpaceX can launch any manned inter-planetary missions, they need to show their rocket can make the distance and land safely. Most people think SpaceX has this ambition near the bottom of its priority list, but they better think again.
The company plans to send its “Dragon” capsule to Mars in 2018. That’s just two years from now, folks. If the mission is a success, SpaceX will have been the first private company to land on another planet.
However, actually landing the spacecraft might be tricky. NASA has used a mixture of techniques in the past, from parachutes to heat shields. The agency struggled to land a rover that weighed roughly 2,000 pounds. (Source: “How SpaceX’s Red Dragon could change the way we land on Mars,” The Verge, April 29, 2016.)
SpaceX says it will be able to land 29,000 pounds on Mars just like it landed its reusable rocket here on Earth. The company will use its “Falcon 9 Heavy” rocket.
These kinds of big-picture projects can help SpaceX in the long run. It makes the company attractive to the best talent and it helps the SpaceX gain the right publicity, both of which can shore up new business.