Spaceflight Insider

Red Dragon: SpaceX planning to send spacecraft to Mars as soon as 2018

Red Dragon spacecraft on the surface of Mars image credit SpaceX posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: SpaceX

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) is planning on sending one of its crew-rated Dragon spacecraft to the planet Mars as early as 2018. The aptly named “Red Dragon” could be sent to the Red Planet in order to further develop the architecture the NewSpace firm needs in place to enable its planetary ambitions. 

Falcon Heavy rocket launches from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A SpaceX image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Artist’s depiction of Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39B. Image Credit: SpaceX

According to a report appearing on NASASpaceFlight, today’s announcement is part of a larger story: Under an agreement the company has entered into with NASA, SpaceX would carry out this 2018 mission to gain more data on a propulsive landing on Mars. SpaceX would send the Red Dragon on its debut flight to Mars filled with science instruments.

To verify the details in this report, SpaceFlight Insider reached out to both SpaceX and NASA. Shortly after this article was published, SpaceX responded to our queries stating: This will be a SpaceX-funded mission, though NASA will offer some technical support (such as the use of the Deep Space Network for comms).

The Washington Post also has stated that SpaceX would be receiving technical (but not financial) support from NASA under this agreement – a fact further outlined here: Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities (CCSC)

SpaceX also stated the following: SpaceX takes planetary protection seriously and we are working with relevant NASA officials to ensure proper procedures are followed. One of the areas of collaboration with NASA is for them to advise SpaceX in the development of our Planetary Protection Plan (PPP) and assist with the implementation of our PPP including identifying existing software/tools.

The company has stated that more information could be issued about this mission later this year. SpaceX’s CEO and Founder, Elon Musk stated on Twitter that Dragon 2 is designed to land anywhere in the Solar System and that the Red Dragon test mission would be the first test flight.

Hawthorne, California-based SpaceX, formed in 2002, has made steady, stunning progress as it has achieved things that far-older organizations have not demonstrated the ability to do.

On December 22, 2015, a Falcon 9 Full Thrust (FT) rocket launched 11 Orbcomm OG2 satellites. Upon the successful completion of the rocket’s primary mission, its first stage then conducted a successful landing at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 13 – which has been renamed Landing Zone 1.

It has been estimated that as many as half (if not more) of the launches of the Falcon 9 will require it to make ocean landings – hence the need for the company’s Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ships (ASDS).

SpaceX has made statements in the past as to its plans to enable exploration of the Solar System, to include Mars and while some have suggested that the company is more likely to send crews to the Red Planet than NASA – this is unlikely to be the case.

SpaceX is a company, one which needs a paying customer to fund at least some of its activities. The company has been smart about the development of its reusable Falcon 9 rockets, opting to carry out the tests of this capability on missions it has been paid to fly. Musk directly addressed his company’s philosophy in this regard when asked by SpaceFlight Insider during a press conference held after the successful completion of the CRS-8 launch and landing of the first stage on the Of Course I Still Love You ASDS on April 8 of this year (2016).

“It’s really hard to do these test flights without, actually, going to orbit. We could conceivably, I suppose, put a huge weight, a 120-ton weight on top of the boost stage, and then do these launches, drop the 120-ton weight and then try to land – but there’s no point in that. Why not just send a useful payload while you’re at it, instead of the dead weight,” Musk said.

In its post on Twitter, SpaceX included an image of the Falcon Heavy which will likely provide the needed thrust to send Red Dragon spacecraft to the vicinity of Mars. The “FH” would have some 27 Merlin engines in its first stage and is, essentially, three Falcon 9 rockets strapped together. The rocket was scheduled to launch as early as 2015, at present, its first flight is set for late this year, possibly in November.

For its part, NASA has been officially working in one form or another to send astronauts to the surface of Mars since 2004 when then-President George W. Bush unveiled the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE). After entering the Oval Office, President Obama cancelled the effort. The U.S. Senate salvaged portions of the Constellation Program which would have provided the hardware for the VSE. NASA has become increasingly supportive of public-private arrangements with commercial firms as the agency works to send crews to the Red Planet sometime in the 2030s under its “Journey to Mars” plan.

“We are closer than ever before to sending American astronauts to Mars than anyone, anywhere, at any time has ever been. A new consensus is emerging around NASA’s plan and timetable for sending astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s. This consensus extends not only across the aisle in Washington, but across the world to the various corners of science, policy, academia, industry, non-profits, citizen scientists, students, and everyday dreamers who envision a future where there is a continuous human presence on Mars and where our own quality of life here on Earth is better because of the technologies that we develop to get there,” said NASA’s Deputy Administrator Dava Newman via a statement issued by NASA.

Video courtesy of NASA

This article was updated at 3:49 p.m. EDT to reflect current information provided by SpaceX and NASA


Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

Reader Comments

You don’t think, “the company is more likely to send crews to the Red Planet than NASA”? Musk has stated many times that this is what SpaceX will do, ultimately flying colonists to Mars, for a fee. He even has a price in mind, though I’m sure this is subject to change. That should satisfy the need to make a profit. Any funds received from NASA for early flights are icing on the cake.

Mr. VomLehn,
What history and math have suggested is it’ll require billions to send crews to Mars. Just because a person states something – doesn’t make it so. As a journalist, I have to look at this in as unbiased a manner as possible. SpaceX hasn’t launched one astronaut yet. When they do, statistically the chances their plans for Mars will increase – and it will continue to do so as they achieve more. What you’re asking for is blind faith – that’s not how journalism works. Finally, the article says it is unlikely to occur in the manner suggested – it does not say that it won’t.
Sincerely, Jason Rhian – Editor, SpaceFlight Insider

Good article and good reply. Elon has said that he plans to go to Mars WITH NASA, and based upon their history up to this point, that is most probably what will happen. A lot of people seem to be compelled to break down into warring teams or tribes. Lucky for us space geeks that Elon is smarter than that. Thanks, as always, for your great reporting.

Well said, Jason. Long live skepticism in journalism.

This is a very fair, and understandable response and skepticism is, unfortunately in short supply among reporters.

As an optimist, and a skeptic, I think the odds are still against SpaceX on beating NASA, or another country, to Mars. However, I still find it very hard to bet against them, as SpaceX (and Musk) have bucked the odds time and again.

Only a few years ago SpaceX was a plucky startup with ambitions of disrupting the launch business, reusable rockets, and haughty plans for Mars. They have gone from the annoying (to entrenched interests) startup to the clear technology and price leader in the industry. Now all launch providers are struggling with plans to MATCH their CURRENT launch prices in the coming years to say nothing of where their prices could be if they are successful in routinely reusing rockets.

Please keep up the great writing (and skepticism).

Jason, Wonderful article as always. You give an old fart some really cool stuff to dream and get excited about.

SpaceX likes to use real spacecraft during their launches to further their ambitions with secondary missions, such as landing their boosters. So, I wonder if they will utilize their Falcon Heavy demonstration and maybe boost a real cargo to orbit for future use. Perhaps a tank full of fuel or oxygen for future use? Non parishable consumables?

Anyone with some expertise have any thoughts?

Hi Peter. I think they have a customer for their first FH flight. Just not sure if it’s public knowledge. Check NSF L2 if you’re a member.

Nice article Jason, thanks.

SpaceX has consistently surprised with respect to their cost/pricing. Oftentimes by significant multiples. This trend seems to be continuing for their Proposed Mars mission. Chances are they’ll do it for human missions as well. History as a predictor always a bit chancy but I’ll bet with rather than against them on this. But then I’ve been a SpaceX fan since their inception.

Good article. I’m a bit skeptical of the timeline SpaceX has posted, it seems like nothing more than propaganda to influence public opinion and policy. But I could be proven wrong. Best of luck to Elon and co.

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