Will NASA Send a Dragon to Mars?

I was at a very interesting event earlier this evening at NASA Ames during which SETI’s Pascal Lee and Mary Roach, the author of “Packing for Mars,” discussed human missions to the Red Planet. When the topic turned during the Q&A to Elon Musk’s plans to colonize Mars, moderator Chris McKay of NASA made a bit of news.

McKay said that Musk had told him that at every point where SpaceX had to make choices on Dragon about materials, heat shield strength and other issues, they chose to design the vehicle for Mars flights. That shines a new light on the video above, which shows a Dragon landing on the Red Planet. The side-mounted retro-rockets are useful not just for targeted touchdowns on Earth but for missions elsewhere.

McKay also revealed NASA is conducting a study on how the agency might send a drill to Mars aboard an unmanned Dragon capsule. I’m not entirely sure how the drill would be deployed, but it’s a really interesting idea. This would be a great way to test out a Dragon on the Red Planet.

  • dagkattstrom

    Any thoughts on the fact that the elbow-room in the Dragon is very limited? It can’t be possible for astroanuts to use the capsule for six months to Mars?

  • michaelturner

    “Any solid surface in the solar system”? A pretty bold claim. Do they mean only planetary landings or could they do the Moon? Wouldn’t that be like a 2km/s delta V, assuming they start from lunar orbit?

    Between this and the speculation that Blue Origin will be flying first stage boosters back for shipboard landing, NewSpace *orbital* systems are starting to look more as God and Robert Heinlein proverbially intended.

    Maybe the real near-term significance here isn’t a Mars mission but rather returning orbital space tourists more comfortably, since that final bump of touchdown in a Soyuz is pretty hard. If so, hmm … at, say, $120M/flight, and assuming 6 passengers, 1 pilot, that’s $20M/passenger. Certainly within the historical ballpark for price. But it’s also more people than ISS has extra room for, so it may become more about what Bigelow can deliver.

    Another interesting mission profile, more Mars-related: go to Mars, aerobrake, then go touch down on a moon. In this case, I guess you’d be using the retrorockets more to cancel leftover relative velocity than the moon’s gravity.

    If you could set it up in an Earth-Mars cycler orbit, the fact that it has internal life-support infrastructure, solar panels and (via the retros) perhaps a way to maintain the not-quite-stable cycler path might mean it would be relatively economical to use a Dragon as a kind of “sample-return biosatellite” for studying the effects of cosmic rays and solar storms on living things, again for figuring out how to do Mars.

  • dougplata

    Dagkatstrom, If you limit the crew to two, this would leave more elbow room. But for a Mars mission, Elon said that multiple launches would be necessary. One of those could be a Bigelow thereby providing a lot of elbow roo
    and space for supplies.

    Michaelturner, Elon said that a repeat Apollo mission would require two FH launches. If a Dragon cannot handle 2?km/sec, then, perhaps an additional external fuel tank could achieve the 2km/sec in a “crasher” arrangement thereby leaving a two-manned Dragon with a nearly full tank on the lunar surface.

  • dougplata

    By crasher, I mean that the external tank would be jettisoned just prior to landing.

  • edhurtley

    @dagkattstrom I think the idea is to have an attached space-only “transfer” vehicle for the trip, and land in the Dragon. Obviously, they couldn’t take off again in the same Dragon again, nor reasonably spend more than a couple days with the Dragon (as designed) on the surface.

    The most reasonable approach is one where they launch the ‘base’ ahead of time, along with the return vehicle (unmanned,) and fly humans TO Mars with only what they need to get there. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_Direct )

    Another option would be to launch the “Mars landing” and “Earth return” vehicles into Mars orbit, rather than directly to Mars surface; launch the “base” and “Mars to Mars orbit” vehicles directly to the surface, and do in-orbit rendezvous at both ends. (This would work for Earth orbit, too, launch the “Earth-orbit to Mars-orbit” and “Earth-orbit-return to Earth surface” vehicles into Earth orbit unmanned.)

  • michaeljohnson



    I think they are talking about sending an UNMANNED Dragon to Mars. Musk does plan to do a manned mission there, but the dragon that would fly that mission is probably 2 or d Dragon generations away, not even on the drawing board yet. Personally, I don’t think NASA could even support a manned mission to Mars, even using inexpensive SpaceX boosters and not their own. The know-how is not there anymore. The first Mars mission will definitely be private, especially the way things are going with NASA.

  • michaelturner

    @dougplata – do you know if the nozzles will be engineered for long burns or are they ablative? Neither escaping from a booster self-destruct nor buffering a touchdown require long burns. On the other hand, maybe a lunar landing in a Dragon with the help of an external tank doesn’t require a long burn — very short, intense burns, then longish cooling periods in between, might do the trick. What matters is that you get the requisite delta V before you run out of altitude.

  • “What matters is that you get the requisite delta V before you run out of altitude.”

    Otherwise… OUCH!!!