Musk: Moon In, Red Dragon & Propulsive Landings Out

Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)

During an appearance at the International Space Station Research & Development Conference on Wednesday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said plans for propulsive crew Dragon landings and Red Dragon missions to Mars had been scrapped, downplayed the probability that the first Falcon Heavy launch will succeed, and even had a good word to say about the moon.

Here are notes from the talk.

State of Space Exploration

  • Entering a new era of space exploration
  • SpaceX and other companies developing new systems
  • NASA approaching things in new ways
  • Space station resupply program should be adapted across the government
  • Key to opening up space is “rapid and complete reusability”, but it is very difficult

Falcon 9

  • Biggest technical accomplishment has been the landing and reuse of Falcon 9 first stage
  • Believes they can get to the point next year where they could turn around a recovered first stage for relaunch in 24 hours with only inspections and no hardware changes
  • Quite close to being able to recover the fairing
  • Good chance of recovering it this year and flying it again later this year or in 2018
  • Fairing alone is $5 to $6 million piece of equipment
  • Imagine we had pallet of $5 million in cash falling through the sky, do we try to catch it? “I say we do. Let’s give it a shot.”
  • Worst thing that happens is it crashes into the ocean

Falcon Heavy

  • Invited everyone down to see the first Falcon Heavy launch later this year
  • There’s a lot that can go wrong on that flight
  • Real good chance the vehicle doesn’t make it to orbit
  • Hopes it makes it far enough away from launch site to not cause damage to Pad 39A — would consider that to be a win
  • Whatever happens, the launch will be very exciting
  • Having 27 Merlin engines firing on the first stage is a tricky proposition
  • Very difficult to test systems on the ground and to simulate flight on a computer
  • Really naive when they started Falcon Heavy about how easy it would be to combine three Falcon 9 first stages together
  • Falcon Heavy can send two people around the moon
  • Dragon has enough margin in heat shield to handle lunar re-entry speeds
  • Did not provide any update on human lunar mission planned for 2018

Dragon II (Crew Dragon)

  • Dragon II is capable of landing on the ground with rockets and landing legs
  • Capsule will not have that capability for crew flights to and from the International Space Station
  • Tough decision, but it would have taken an enormous amount of effort to certify the vehicle to meet NASA safety standards
  • Working through a number of issues with NASA on Dragon II
  • Requirements and NASA oversight much greater than with cargo Dragon
  • Expects to conduct a crew flight to the space station by the middle of 2018

Mars Plans

  • “If you want to get the public real fired up, I think we’ve got to have a base on the moon.” That would be pretty cool. And then going beyond that, getting people to Mars.”
  • Propulsive landing system that Red Dragon would have used is no longer best way for landing vehicles
  • Red Dragon missions are not the best way to apply SpaceX resources at this time
  • Revising Mars plan presented last year to make it somewhat smaller (but still large) and more economically viable
  • A key issue is bringing down the cost — getting people to Mars would be “super expensive”
  • Hoping to present revised plan during International Astronautic Congress meeting in Adelaide, Australia at the end of September
  • Mars trip would be risky, dangerous and uncomfortable and you might die

Cargo Dragon

  • SpaceX’s internal accounting shows that the re-flown Dragon cargo vehicle cost as much or more than building a new one
  • A lot of refurbishment needed before relaunching the vehicle
  • Second re-flown Dragon could cost as little as 50 percent of a new vehicle
  • Should have made a bigger deal about flying a used Dragon
  • Cargo version of Dragon II (crew Dragon) should be able to survive a booster failure






  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, if he wants revenue, he will need to focus on develop Cislunar markets first. He is also learning just how difficult it is to work NASA when astronauts are involved.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Near term (Like up into the mid 2020s) private revenue will be scarce for both. A few flights around the moon maybe a couple mining pathfinder missions, that’s not a lot of hang a development hat on.

  • therealdmt

    That sucks about Red Dragon. I’d noticed Shotwell kind of casually pushed that back a few years in her recent Space Show comments and now, just from reading this summary, it looks like it’s out entirely.

    I think NASA might have been partially counting on Red Dragon too, what with no new Mars missions beyond the next rover (2020) funded and the looming need to return the 2020 rover’s cached samples. I was just reading an article the other day saying that it seemed NASA was entering into a bit of a holding pattern, waiting to see if lower cost commercial solutions emerged to their unmanned Mars exploration needs. Now, any outer planet missions like to Uranus or (preferably) Neptune will have to compete with full cost Mars missions.

    A (unmanned) Mars COTS could likely get that kind of thing going though…

  • therealdmt

    Very, very interesting with the call for a Moon base.

    This essentially means that the space community can unite around one next step

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I had serious doubts about Red Dragon. That said, 15 tonnes to Mars is nothing to sneeze at for prospective orbiter(s) or JPL landers. We could do some really interesting explorations if we MIRVed Mars with a convoy of MER rovers from the early 2000’s. We know they work, will last a long time and could be less expensive if we chose to execute the program in the right way.

  • Stu

    This never seemed viable. I’m not remotely surprised that it has been canned.

  • Saturn13

    Musks plans sound a lot more doable. Concepts like Falcon Heavy do look simple at first look. An example:My suggestion to use a 2 segment SRB for the Antares may be too much. Antares weighs 657,000lbs loaded, 864,000lbs thrust. The 1 segment ATK RSRM(’12 Catalog) has 900,000lb thrust at launch, would weigh 448,601lbs with 2nd stage. RSRM has a much better thrust to weight ratio. Maybe too much. The Gs may get too high. They can change the fuel to get a less thrust more burn time that is needed, maybe all the way down too what Antares is now. 1/4 of a Shuttle SRB. Ought to be a lot cheaper.It would not be 1/4 in price though since there is the nozzle and cap at the top. O-ATK ought to try like SpaceX to recover the fairing. It is not a regular fairing. It is really large. It covers the whole 2nd stage. Must cost a lot more than the 6 million$ Musk says F9 costs. O-ATK and NASA could negotiate so that O-ATK makes the same profit and NASA saves a lot of money and Trump gets a Made in the USA.

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “…that’s not a lot of hang a development hat on”
    Quite so. From what I gleaned of Elon’s comments on this, I’m guessing the majority of revenue is to come from LEO. So a sub-scale version of BFR/BFS to be raptor powered, fully reusable, and to replace F9/FH in about 5 years?. Having an architecture that can service all “markets”, from LEO/GEO to Lunar and Martian means they can build many more for much less and benefit from production line manufacturing savings (ala F9) and much greater operational experience. The only downside from Musk’s perspective is a lower passenger count per vessel to Mars, but in all other aspects going smaller should be easier, cheaper, safer and most importantly, sooner.

  • windbourne

    While I am a bit surprised that he is dropping red dragon/cargo propulsive landings, not the least bit surprised that he is talking moon. A number of ppl here have said that he NEEDED the moon so that he has monthly launches. Without that, he simply can not afford the BFR, with only a couple of launches every 2 years (i.e. it becomes an SLS).

    What is needed is for Bigelow, BO, SX, and even ULA, to get a government to be willing to pay for putting 3 astronauts on the moon for a year as a service. If they get one government, then many others will jump on that. And with both BO and SX with SHLV (along with maybe SLS), perhaps ULA will do ACES, add in several groups with landers and it is easy enough to do this.

  • windbourne

    It really does not make sense to replace FH with another. FH uses 2 F9s (and 1 modified F9), which allows for keeping their prices low.
    OTOH, any thing that goes to the moon/mars really does not make sense for LEO/GEO operations.
    However, if he keeps BFR going, it can service both the moon and mars. To do this, SX needs to work with Bigelow and others so that he can launch 1x / month.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    The goal is for subscale BFR to make all others obsolete, per Tom Mueller’s comments a few weeks ago. This would include F9/FH.

  • Vladislaw

    More than 3 though … 6 so you can add international partners in and need more more cargo flights?

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    What is a big rocket (i.e. sub-scale ITS) good for? = Putting 150 tonnes of cargo into LEO (or geyond Earth if refuelled on orbit). What is a small rocket (i.e. small sat launcher) good for? = Putting a 400 kg satellite into a specific low earth orbit.
    A SEP tug could plane change a 400kg satellite using less than 100kg of xenon. So a FULLY REUSABLE (perhaps 1000 times) big rocket could launch to just a few orbital planes and still deliver small satellites to any given orbit cheaper than a small sat launch system. Such an architecture could also deliver several GEO sats for a single launch. Such an architecture could also have an upper stage configured for cargo/satellites, people (and/or cargo) to LEO/Lunar/Mars, tanker for propellant delivery to other Earth departure upper stages.

    If you want to carry 3000 containers across the Pacific, would you take them one at a time on small boats, or put them on a big container ship. The idea that big rockets are not suitable for LEO/GEO duty is an outmoded way of thinking. Properly designed and configured, such an architecture could economically service everywhere in the solar system, including LEO, which is where most of the money will be.

  • windbourne

    If 3 are going via private space, u can bet that other gov will jump all over it.
    Some, like esa, might want humans launched and housed via private space, while they send cargo up via Ariane, while developing other parts.
    Canada, Japan, etc would all follow the same route.
    Russia is a large question mark, but more so on America’s part. If up to me, we would continue flying with them.
    And no doubt, American Congress would block China from being on this.

  • windbourne

    The same ships crossing the Pacific are NOT used on the great lakes.

  • windbourne

    What comment/speech did Tom speak of that?
    Here is from May 02.

    And here is the posting by doug on Parabolic,

    What is interesting is that YOU commented and claimed that he spoke of sub-scaling then, but he never did.

    And James and Paul also pointed out that he did not say that. And you can actually look through the transcript and clearly see that never made that claim.
    So, far, nears as I can tell, you are the only one that has made that claim/assumption.

    And again, I can not see any value in moving to a single unit that is used for sending up 50 tonnes and less, as well as 300-500 tonnes and still be economical.

    Now, at some point, I can see them replacing the Merlins with a small set of Raptors, but otherwise, no.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Did you miss the memo? Watch the video above starting at the 50:00 mark. If that isn’t confirmation of sub-scale BFR I don’t know what is. Clearly Mueller and Musk are talking about the same vehicle here. Hence 1+1=2

    Mueller’s Comments:

    “The Mars rocket is meant to be completely reusable. Both stages, ship and can lift hundreds of tons in a single flight; it
    can go all the way to Mars and back, and you’ll have to fuel it on Mars;
    we’ll need to make about 1000 tons of propellant on Mars over a
    two-year cycle; bring it back; and that’s a tall order. You need about
    half a megawatt of energy to that much propellant

    That rocket is going to be the real game-changer. I would say that
    the Falcon 9 is evolutionary, you know, a reusable rocket that greatly
    reduces the cost of access to space. Maybe we can achieve ten reduction in cost over, you know, like what ULA or the Russians or the Chinese are doing, with the Falcon. But we want like a hundred or more reduction in costs; and that’s what the Mars rocket’s gonna do. That’s going to be the revolutionary rocket.

    So once we’re flying that, all other rockets will probably be
    obsolete. “

  • ThomasLMatula

    Its a start, and more than NASA has done since Apollo.

  • Jeff2Space

    The shuttle program was supposed to be a step in the right direction, but when budget (political) issues forced them to bring the DOD on board to help fund/support the program, the orbiter morphed into this huge monstrosity in order to launch DOD payloads. Bringing in DOD kept the program alive, but also insured it would never meet the goal of making space flight more affordable via reuse.

  • publiusr

    After all the snarky SLS bashing–the newspacers find that Red Dragon and a flawless Falcon Heavy Launch is likely fiction.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    You do realize that Red Dragon is being canceled and REPLACED by an accelerated schedule on ITS? And news flash, the first Delta IV Heavy was not flawless and neither way the first Space Shuttle flight.

  • Stu

    To be fair, replacing thing that is happening imminently with thing that is even bigger that will happen sometime further away (which then gets canned ad-infinitum) is standard paractice in the space industry. Humans on Mars is a very, very long time away.

    At least the moon is actually doable.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Ah, so you are now dotted lining the graph with 1 iteration to ad-infinitum….Mars is doable too.

  • Stu

    No, I pointed out that “ad-infinitum” is standard pracitice in the space industry. Do I think this will happen with Musk? Yes, I do. And no, Mars is not currently doable or even close to doable (other than to get some people there and leave them to die when the funding and interest runs out).

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    And what was your position 5 years ago on landing and re-flight of boosters? Musk has already brought in his “even bigger” with something smaller which violates your rule. Mars is completely doable round trip, but need the will. No magic required.

  • Stu

    My position was that it sounded like a good idea. The one has nothing to do with other. Mars is not doable unless the world’s financial system turns on its head and devotes unimaginable amounts of money to do it, with absolutely no valid reason for it to do so, other than “hey, that would be cool”. It isn’t going to happen any time soon.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    I see how you moved from “or even close to doable” to just a matter of money in short order…progress of a sort. Next you have to wonder ways you could make it cost less. Hmmm

  • Stu

    Almost everything comes down to money. We don’t know how to solve a lot of the problems of getting to (and more importantly back from) Mars. Without far, far more money than is going to be spent on those problems (with no apparent real reason to do so), it remains “not doable”. Musk knows that, as he might be a showman, but he certainly isn’t a fool.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Somethings come down to physics. The money is actually a lot easier than the alternative. A fleet of fully and rapidly reusable heavy lifters, I suspect changes the cost equation dramatically. The rest is ECLSS, SRP and ISRU. All just engineering with some demo missions to prove it out. Will be risky but doable.

  • publiusr

    Musk said it would be lucky if it got away from the pad. Both Delta IV and Shuttle did that at least.

    “I hope it makes it far enough away from the pad that it does not cause pad damage. I would consider even that a win, to be honest,” Musk told NASA ISS program manager Kirk Shireman,

    For awhile–it looked like MAF was snakebit. They got a twister.


    Now–I am not calling for Falcon Heavy to be cancelled. I’m not Conway Costigan–calling it a Hobby Rocket.

    What I’m doing is showing what it feels like to have every little thing questioned.

    SpaceX deserves respect.

    And so do SLS workers.

  • Mr Snarky Answer

    Shuttle barely did it, they got lucky. And yes we are all glad there is only one Gary Church in the World.

    Workers deserve respect, the leaders who came up with the plan for SLS do not.

  • Paul451

    Very, very interesting with the call for a Moon base.

    I got the impression he was just trying not to be seen as a rival to his major customer. (In the same way that he went out of his way to praise NASA and the ISS.) Those parts of the interview seemed the most awkward, lots of hanging silences.

    From your other comment:

    I think NASA might have been partially counting on Red Dragon too

    I figured the opposite, given that Musk seems to be dropping the idea, he figured that NASA isn’t interested.

    It’s like propulsive landing. Reading between the lines, it seems like the issue isn’t internal, isn’t technical, it’s getting NASA to agree. So Musk has given up for now. Get it flying first.

  • Paul451

    Also, if you are mass producing. Drop a couple of copies on the moon as a proof of concept of near real-time control. They only need to last 14 days each. And if they survive a “night” and boot-up again in the “morning”, bonus!

    But that said, if you are doing that kind of program, you want to start with something vaguely ambitious, but strip it back to the barest minimum, and produce a few of those as your first iteration. Use instruments from previous missions. Grossly under-efficiency. Then you use the first mission(s) to mature the first design, improve instruments, etc. Then you upgrade the chassis to a new improved design, but carrying proven instruments from previous missions, then mature that design. Rinse, repeat.

    The key isn’t just the incremental improvements, its the fact that you start with the simplest, stripped down possible version of your ultimate goal. You build as cheaply as possible. It’s disposable. You build expecting the first one or three to fail; likewise the first 1-3 of each chassis upgrade.

    You don’t start with an existing “final” design, like MER or MSL, no matter how successful or proven. They’ve been optimised to within an inch of their lives. Instead you want to create Lego. Lego aren’t optimised for the final product, they are optimised for changing things.

  • Paul451
  • publiusr

    Things seem to happen in waves. The MAF twister, the pin deal–now a fire, no Red Dragon retro-landing.–superstition maybe.