A few more details regarding SpaceX’s Red Dragon mission to Mars emerged during a quarterly meeting of the NASA Advisory Council, which was held in Cleveland on July 26th.
As reported in SpaceNews, NASA estimates that it will spend roughly $32 million over four years supporting the mission, which SpaceX hopes to launch in 2018. SpaceX on the other hand, is expected to spend some $300 million, a figure loosely derived from conversations with company officials who cited a likely 10:1 ratio of their expenses compared to those incurred by NASA.
The report, which was delivered to the Council by NASA deputy associate administrator Jim Reuters, who works in the space technology mission directorate, went to point out that it would take NASA until the late 2020’s at the very earliest to conduct a similar test of supersonic retro-propulsion at Mars. It is the acquisition of that data, which will be provided by SpaceX, which serves as the justification for the agency’s contributions.
While it seems somewhat unlikely that SpaceX will make the 2018 launch window, by the time the next opportunity rolls around 26 months later, the company should be well past its current challenges of introducing the Commercial Crew Dragon on which the Mars mission will be based, as well as the Falcon Heavy booster which will launch it.
Regardless of the launch date, there are two critical numbers to keep in mind. The first is that if the mission is successful, SpaceX will have bested NASA’s landed delivery capacity to the Red Planet by a factor of at least 8, and possibly 10. That is great news for Mars scientists of all stripes, and a wonderful capability for an agency looking to facilitate them.
The other number is even more significant, but for a very different reason. The $32 million the agency expects to spend in support of the Red Dragon mission is slightly less than 10 days of NASA expenditures on the Orion spacecraft alone in FY 2016. ($1.27 B)