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

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Has Mars Man Musk Pivoted to the Moon?

A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc

Partway through an appearance at the International Space Station R&D Conference on Wednesday, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk dropped a bombshell into a conference room at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC.

“If you want to get the public real fired up, I think we’ve got to have a base on the moon,” he said. “That would be pretty cool. And then going beyond that, getting people to Mars.”

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SpaceX Weighing Sending 2 Red Dragon Missions to Mars in 2020

Red Dragon enters Mars atmosphere. (Credit: SpaceX)

NASA Planetary Science Division Director Jim Green said on Tuesday that SpaceX plans to launch two Red Dragon missions to Mars during the 2020 launch window.

“Every 26 months, the highway to Mars opens up, and that highway is going to be packed. We start out at the top of that opportunity with a SpaceX launch of Red Dragon. That will be followed at the end of that opportunity with another Red Dragon. Those have been announced by SpaceX,” Green said during an appearance at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, DC.

The Red Dragon is a modified version of the Dragon spacecraft SpaceX uses to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. SpaceX will send these automated vehicles to the surface as a precursor to human missions it wants to fly in the 2020’s.

SpaceX has announced that it will send a Red Dragon to the surface in 2020.  However, Elon Musk’s company has said nothing publicly about a second spacecraft. Red Dragons are designed to perform automated descent, entry and landings on the martian surface.

SpaceX had planned to launch the first Red Dragon mission in 2018. However, the effort was pushed back two years due to the company’s other commitments, which include commercial cargo and crew missions for NASA and a backed up launch manifest caused, in part, by two Falcon 9 failures.

The inaugural flight test of the Falcon Heavy booster that will launch the Red Dragon spacecraft has also been delayed for more than four years. That test is currently scheduled for the third quarter of 2017.

NASA is providing about $30 million in in-kind support for the first Red Dragon flight in exchange for entry data. The space agency’s support includes trajectory analysis and tracking and communications via the Deep Space Network.

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Elon Musk’s Bold Lunar Gambit: Dueling Moon Missions & a Shrinking Pie

Elon Musk (Credit: SpaceX)

I’ve been puzzling for the last few days over the timing of Musk’s moon mission announcement, which was curious for several reasons.

First, it came soon after NASA announced its own study about whether to put astronauts on the first SLS/Orion test in 2019. Why would Musk risk undercuting his biggest customer, a space agency that has provided so much of SpaceX’s development and contract funding?

Second, Musk’s unveiling of the plan seemed to be a rushed, improvised affair. He tweeted about it the day before — a Sunday — and then held a press briefing for a small group of media that lasted all of about five minutes. The contrast with the carefully choreographed unveiling of his Mars transportation architecture last year in Mexico couldn’t be greater.

Third, Musk has never really shown much interest in the moon. Yes, SpaceX might have been doing some planning for a human mission there in private. But, that still doesn’t explain the timing.

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Part III: All Aboard Elon Musk’s Mars Express

A view from martian orbit. (Credit: SpaceX)

“The goal of SpaceX is really to build the transport system. It’s like building the Union Pacific Railroad. And once that transport system is built then there’s a tremendous opportunity for anyone who wants to go to Mars and create something new or build the foundations of a new planet.

“When they were building the Union Pacific, a lot of people said that’s a super dumb idea because hardly anybody lives in California. But, now today we’ve got the U.S. epicenter of technology development and entertainment, and it’s the biggest state in the nation.

Elon Musk
SpaceX Founder & CEO

By Douglas Messier
Managing Edtior

The idea of a transcontinental railroad to the West Coast came into the world in 1830 as many dreams do: as a visionary, if seemingly outrageous, plan that few people took seriously. Why build a rail line through a howling wilderness where almost nobody lived? It would be a hideously expensive boondoggle, a road to nowhere.

This same problem has dogged the space movement since Sputnik was launched 60 years ago. While Hartwell Carver and other backers of the transcontinental railroad were able to overcome all the obstacles in their way, human progress in the silent vacuum of space has been slow and halting. It has never lived up the expectations people had at the start of the Space Age.

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Musk Reaches for Mars; NASA Worries About Reaching Space Station

soyuz_seat_costs_2006-18
While Elon Musk was in Mexico last week wowing the world with his plan to send a million people to Mars, NASA officials north of the border in Houston were contemplating a more mundane problem: how to continue sending a handful of American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

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SpaceX: Giant Leaps, Deep Troughs But No Plateaus

Credit: USLaunchReport.com
Credit: USLaunchReport.com

Out of the blue and into the black
They give you this, but you pay for that
And once you’re gone, you can never come back
When you’re out of the blue and into the black.

My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)
Neil Young

In his book, “Mastery,” George Leonard provides a fascinating explanation of how people master new skills.

The mastery curve (Credit: George Leonard)
The mastery curve (Credit: George Leonard)

“There’s really no way around it. Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it,” Leonard writes. “The curve above is not necessarily idealized. In the actual learning experience, progress is less regular; the upward spurts vary; the plateaus have their own dips and rises along the way. But the general progression is almost always the same.”

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Smallsat 2016: Shotwell Discusses Launch Plans

Gwynne Shotwell
Gwynne Shotwell

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell spoke at the Small Satellite 2016 Conference in Utah on Tuesday.

Shotwell talked about the importance of fully reusing the Falcon boosters, SpaceX’s Red Dragon mission to Mars, and about how SpaceX could open up Earth orbit and beyond to the smallsat community. She also defended the company’s decision to abandon development of its Falcon 1e small satellite launcher.

Although I wasn’t able to attend this year, I have pulled a summary of her talk off Twitter. Information came from the following Tweeters:

  • C. G. Niederstrasser ‏@RocketScient1st
  • Jeff Foust ‏@jeff_foust
  • David Hurst ‏@OrbitalDave
  • RITSpaceExploration ‏@RITSPEX

Enjoy!
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NASA Advisory Council Receives Updates on NASA Programs

NASA LOGOThe NASA Advisory Council has been meeting in Cleveland this week, receiving program updates from top agency officials. Below is a summary of the first two days based on Tweets by Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust) and Marcia Smith (@SpcPlcyOnline). There are updates below on:

  • Commercial crew
  • Commercial cargo
  • International Space Station
  • SLS/Orion
  • NextSTEP
  • Deep-space human mission planning
  • SpaceX’s Red Dragon
  • Mars 2020
  • Blue Origin

Enjoy!
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SpaceX Working With NASA on Sending Dragon Spacecraft to Mars

Red Dragon landing on Mars (Credit: SpaceX)
Red Dragon landing on Mars (Credit: SpaceX)

SpaceX announced today that it would be sending a modified robotic Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018. The company has been working with NASA on key elements of the mission under a non-reimbursable Space Act Agreement signed in December 2014 as part of the space agency’s Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities (CCSC) program.

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Video: SpaceX’s Red Dragon Mission to Mars

Abstract: One of Ames’ long standing science interests has been to robotically drill deeply into Mars’ subsurface environment (2 meters, or more) to investigate the habitability of that zone for past or extant life. Large, capable Mars landers would ease the problem of landing and operating deep robotic drills. In 2010, an Ames scientist realized that the crew-carrying version of the SpaceX Dragon capsule would possess all the subsystems necessary to perform a soft landing on Earth, and raised the question of whether it could also soft land on Mars. If it could, it might be a candidate platform for a Discovery or Mars Scout class deep drilling mission, for example.

After approximately 3 years studying the engineering problem we have concluded that a minimally modified Dragon capsule (which we call the “Red Dragon”) could successfully perform an all-propulsive Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL). We present and discuss the analysis that supports this conclusion. At the upper limits of its capability, a Red Dragon could land approximately 2 metric tons of useful payload, or approximately twice the mass that the MSL Skycrane demonstrated with a useful volume 3 or 4 times as great. This combination of features led us to speculate that it might be possible to land enough mass and volume with a Red Dragon to enable a Mars Sample Return mission in which Mars Orbit Rendezvous is avoided, and the return vehicle comes directly back to Earth. This potentially lowers the risk and cost of a sample return mission. We conclude that such an Earth-Direct sample return architecture is feasible if the Earth Return Vehicle is constructed as a small spacecraft. Larry Lemke will present and discuss the analysis that supports this conclusion.

Scientific Paper: RED DRAGON: LOW-COST ACCESS TO THE SURFACE OF MARS USING COMMERCIAL CAPABILITIES.

Video Presentation on Red Dragon Mission to Mars

Abstract: One of Ames’ long standing science interests has been to robotically drill deeply into Mars’ subsurface environment (2 meters, or more) to investigate the habitability of that zone for past or extant life. Large, capable Mars landers would ease the problem of landing and operating deep robotic drills. In 2010, an Ames scientist realized that the crew-carrying version of the SpaceX Dragon capsule would possess all the subsystems necessary to perform a soft landing on Earth, and raised the question of whether it could also soft land on Mars. If it could, it might be a candidate platform for a Discovery or Mars Scout class deep drilling mission, for example.

After approximately 3 years studying the engineering problem we have concluded that a minimally modified Dragon capsule (which we call the “Red Dragon”) could successfully perform an all-propulsive Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL). We present and discuss the analysis that supports this conclusion. At the upper limits of its capability, a Red Dragon could land approximately 2 metric tons of useful payload, or approximately twice the mass that the MSL Skycrane demonstrated with a useful volume 3 or 4 times as great. This combination of features led us to speculate that it might be possible to land enough mass and volume with a Red Dragon to enable a Mars Sample Return mission in which Mars Orbit Rendezvous is avoided, and the return vehicle comes directly back to Earth. This potentially lowers the risk and cost of a sample return mission. We conclude that such an Earth-Direct sample return architecture is feasible if the Earth Return Vehicle is constructed as a small spacecraft. Larry Lemke will present and discuss the analysis that supports this conclusion.