SpaceX’s upcoming Red Dragon mission — the company’s plan to send one of its Dragon capsules to Mars in 2018 — is estimated to cost around $320 million, Space News reports. That’s according to NASA representative Jim Reuter, who spoke at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council in Cleveland yesterday. That’s a relatively cheap price tag, given that NASA’s recent Mars missions have hovered in the billions (though they are much different in scope).
That’s a relatively cheap price tag
When discussing NASA’s involvement in the Red Dragon mission, Reuter said that the space agency would be investing $32 million into the project. NASA has agreed to provide advice and technical support to SpaceX in exchange for data the company collects during the Dragon’s descent and landing on Mars. However, no funds will be exchanged between the two entities. Reuter said that the $32 million would go toward the salaries of the employees who provide support to SpaceX, according to Space News.
Reuter was then asked how much SpaceX would be spending on the project, and he replied that the company would be paying about 10 times as much as NASA invested. Quick math works that out to be $320 million. SpaceX declined to comment when asked about this estimate. The company has yet to release details about how much the Red Dragon mission will cost and how it will finance the trip.
The main goal of SpaceX’s Red Dragon mission is to see if the company can land heavy payloads on Mars — an incredibly difficult feat to accomplish. The planet has a very thin atmosphere that’s just one-hundredth the pressure of Earth’s, so it provides little resistance to slow down incoming spacecraft. As a result, heavier vehicles descending to the Martian surface have a much harder time landing intact. The Curiosity Rover, which weighed just under a metric ton, was the heaviest payload that NASA has ever landed on Mars. But if you’re going to start a Martian colony — something SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has touted for years — you’ll need to land a lot more than that. A colony will need a lot of equipment, and the necessary tools are going to add up to way more than just one ton.
An artistic rendering of SpaceX's Red Dragon vehicle on Mars. (SpaceX)
The Red Dragon is SpaceX’s answer to that problem. The vehicle is a modified version of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the vehicle the company is making to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Rather than rely on parachutes to land, the Red Dragon will conduct a propulsive landing: during descent, thrusters embedded in the hull of the vehicle will fire against the ground. This will hopefully slow the spacecraft’s fall enough so that it can perform a controlled landing. If successful, the Red Dragon, which won’t have any people on board, will be the largest object ever landed on Mars, at around eight to 10 tons, according to Reuter.
But 2018 is approaching fast, and SpaceX still has a few crucial goals to meet
But 2018 is approaching fast, and SpaceX still has a few crucial goals to meet before the Red Dragon mission can happen. First, it has to launch its Falcon Heavy, the huge heavy lift rocket that is basically three Falcon 9s strapped together. The rocket will have enough thrust to get a heavy payload like the Red Dragon to Mars, but the massive rocket has yet to fly. It’s supposedly going to fly for the first time later this year, but the Falcon Heavy’s inaugural launch has been pushed back many times before.
An artistic rendering of what SpaceX's Falcon Heavy will look like during launch. (SpaceX)
Plus, SpaceX has a lot on its plate at the moment. The company has upped the frequency of its Falcon 9 launches this year, and it’s working to finish developing its Crew Dragon vehicle for NASA, which is supposed to launch to the International Space Station sometime next year.
Still, starting a Martian colony has always been the main focus of SpaceX, or at least that of Elon Musk. The CEO said the 2018 mission is just the first in a series of missions to the Red Planet that will help establish "a cargo route to Mars." SpaceX plans to send a vehicle to Mars every two years, with people eventually traveling there in 2024. It’s an incredibly ambitious timeline, especially for a company that has yet to launch people into space. However, Musk said he plans to reveal the full extent of his Mars colonization plans in September.