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