Cost details revealed for SpaceX’s Red Dragon mission
In a July 2016 NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meeting, it was revealed how much SpaceX‘s Red Dragon mission would cost the agency, which has an unfunded Space Act Agreement with the NewSpace firm. According to SpaceNews, in a 10 to 1 ratio, with SpaceX spending the bulk, the total cost is expected to be on the order of $320 million.
In late April, SpaceX released information about Red Dragon, an unpiloted, modified version of the company’s Crew Dragon, and their cooperation with NASA. The company stated it hopes to send this spacecraft to the planet Mars as early as 2018.
Such a mission would give the company vital technological information on landing a very heavy vehicle on the surface of that alien body: They will use retrorockets to slow Red Dragon to a safe landing rather than depending on airbags or parachutes as past robotic Mars missions have done.
This dramatic test could allow SpaceX to place an actual crewed version of their Red Dragon on the Red Planet as early as 2025, which the company has previously stated they hope to do.
In order to meet this goal and eventually have humans directly exploring Mars in the next decade, the private company is working with NASA to turn these plans into reality. The two organizations met to discuss these plans at the NAC’s technology committee meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, Tuesday, July 26. A slide presentation of the details may be found here.
NASA presented its areas of support with the release of six Technical Exchange Documents, or TEDs. They involve deep space communications, spacecraft trajectory design and navigation support. NASA will provide their data on the Entry, Descent, and Landing (EDL) portions of exploring Mars. Other TEDs include aero-science activities, flight system technical review and advice, and planetary protection consultation and advice – just in case Mars is not biologically dead.
In return for this support, NASA will receive the returned Red Dragon EDL results for their own analysis to incorporate into their own plans for placing astronauts on Earth’s celestial neighbor, currently planned for sometime in the 2030s. They will be using the Orion manned spacecraft launched atop a powerful Space Launch System (SLS) rocket. Both vehicles are currently under development and testing.
One item NASA and SpaceX will not be providing each other is funding. Reuter said the space agency will use about $32 million over four years to pay NASA personnel who will be giving technical support to SpaceX.
“We determined there was a reasonable likelihood of their concept being a successful mission,” Reuter told the council. “We thought our expertise would enhance that.”
Reuter added SpaceX’s plan to launch Red Dragon in May 2018 would be on “an extremely aggressive schedule”. Another part of their agreement includes milestones to let NASA determine how well SpaceX is staying on their schedule targets.
SpaceX did not release to news media how much its share of this venture will be. However, Reuter indicated that the company’s investment was 10 times that of NASA.
“They did talk to us about a 10-to-1 arrangement in terms of cost: theirs 10, ours 1,” Reuter said. “I think that’s in the ballpark.”
This would indicate that SpaceX is spending around $300 million on Red Dragon. A few other news sources have put the cost estimate at $320 million.
Other released technical details on the Red Dragon mission state the spacecraft will be launched atop a Falcon Heavy rocket. To save weight, Red Dragon will contain neither displays nor environmental controls. The unpressurized trunk section attached to the spacecraft will have “more substantial” modifications, according to Reuter, primarily in the form of solar array placement and thermal controls.
Although NASA has not formally discussed any future space plans with SpaceX beyond their joint work with Red Dragon, Musk sees the 2018 mission as the first substantial step in establishing “a cargo route to Mars,” as he calls it.
If all goes well, in 2020, SpaceX plans to send two additional Red Dragons to Mars. After that, in 2022, the company hopes to launch a Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT) to test in deep space the planned home for the astronauts who will make the first crewed journey to land on the Red Planet. Elon Musk, the company’s CEO, believes a crewed mission to Mars could be possible as early as 2024.
Larry Klaes is an author and freelance journalist specializing in news and educational work on the sciences. Klae's past endeavors include editor of SETIQuest magazine and President of the Boston chapter of the National Space Society (NSS). Klaes joined SpaceFlight Insider in 2016.