Age of the Dragon: SpaceX has ambitious plans for the Red Planet
Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX), based in Hawthorne, California, is one of NASA’s partners in the agency’s Commercial Crew and Cargo programs. SpaceX was founded in 2002 and has developed the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets to launch its Dragon capsule to fulfill its contract of delivering cargo to the ISS under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program. However, SpaceX has other, more ambitious plans for its Dragon spacecraft.
In 2012, Dragon became the first commercial spacecraft ever to deliver cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Up to now there have been six Dragon resupply missions to the ISS, although none have been crewed. The first crewed mission is currently scheduled for 2017. However, members of Congress are working to restrict funds – which could see that first flight slip to no-earlier-than 2018.
Nevertheless, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has far more ambitious plans for Dragon.
According to a report appearing on Space.com, NASA might choose to send an unmanned Dragon to Mars for a sample collecting mission called “Red Dragon” as early as 2022. Under this scenario, a specially equipped Dragon – carrying a sample container, an Earth Return Vehicle (ERV), and a Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV) – would be launched by a Falcon Heavy rocket and travel to Mars. If this mission were to leave the concept stage, the Dragon capsule would not use parachutes to descend to the surface of Mars; it would instead use the SuperDraco system to descend to the dusty surface below – for a precision touchdown. After collecting samples, the Dragon would use the MAV to launch the ERV from the Martian surface and return directly to Earth.
If this plan gains traction, a later mission would launch another Dragon, by another Falcon Heavy booster, to rendezvous with the return vehicle in high-Earth orbit and retrieve the sample container.
Musk tweeted his enthusiasm regarding the Red Dragon project, saying, “Dragon 2 is designed to land on any surface (liquid or solid) in the solar system. Am glad to see people thinking about applications!” He added, “In expendable mode, Falcon Heavy can send a fully loaded Dragon to Mars or a light Dragon to Jupiter’s moons. Europa mission wd [sic] be cool.”
Musk has recently received a lot of press stemming from this opinion, stated on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert on Sept. 9, 2015, that Mars could be terraformed by detonating nuclear weapons to heat up the Martian atmosphere. Most conventional terraforming models involve a more gradual process, such as setting up a mirror in orbit to reflect more sunlight onto the poles or layering a darkened material on the surface to absorb heat. Whether Musk’s proposal would work or not, it does demonstrate his ultimate objective of sending humans to Mars.
According to a Sept. 29 article in Popular Mechanics, a “relatively unbiased analysis of the groups attempting to reach Mars” placed SpaceX in the lead – ahead of NASA, due to the likelihood of budget cuts.
SpaceX has developed its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets to launch its Dragon capsule on an array of missions. At present, the NewSpace firm uses the uncrewed version of the vehicle to carry out cargo runs to the orbiting lab. Not all of these have gone off without a hitch. On June 28, a SpaceX Falcon 9 exploded 139 seconds into flight, resulting in the complete loss of the booster and spacecraft.
SpaceX was also tapped in September of 2014 under NASA’s Commercial Crew transportation Capability (CCtCap) phase of the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program that SpaceX has signed with NASA. A crewed version of Dragon has already carried out a Pad Abort Test in May of this year.
Dragon is somewhat similar to NASA’s Orion and Boeing’s Starliner CST-100 vehicles in that Dragon is capable of accommodating up to seven astronauts. Dragon is capsule-shaped and is launched by SpaceX’s own Falcon 9 rocket. After concluding its mission, the Dragon parachutes into the ocean, like the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft of the 1960s–1970s – and like the Starliner and Orion capsules.
The Dragon’s propulsion is provided by SpaceX’s own Draco thrusters, which run on nitrogen tetroxide and monomethylhydrazine. The Launch Escape System uses eight redundant SuperDraco engines, which produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust. SpaceX considers its launch escape system to be safer than previous systems because it is never jettisoned. SuperDracos are designed to be capable of being restarted several times as well as throttleable.
Beneath the capsule is the spacecraft’s trunk, which houses any unpressurized payload. The spacecraft’s solar arrays are affixed to either side of Dragon’s trunk section. Like the Apollo spacecraft’s service module, the trunk is jettisoned before re-entry.
To date, SpaceX has made impressive strides in a wide range of space-related endeavors, all the while working to lower the cost of sending payloads to orbit. During an event welcoming back the Exploration Flight Test 1 Orion spacecraft, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden noted that commercial firms such as SpaceX – will likely have a role to plan in the agency’s missions into deep space.
While the day might come where astronauts use a Dragon spacecraft to descend to the Red Planet, the firm must first achieve the milestone of sending an astronaut to orbit. At present, no astronaut has used a private spacecraft as their ride to orbit. As noted, this might occur as early as 2018.
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.