When SpaceX’s Elon Musk announced that he expected to land a Red Dragon on Mars in 2018, people took notice. NASA scrambled to form a partnership in the venture, recognizing an opportunity when it saw one. Then Musk dropped the bombshell that he also expects to put a human being on the Martian surface by 2025. No one laughed at the idea that a private company, especially one that hasn’t even put a person in low Earth orbit yet, could manage a feat that nobody in the history of #Space exploration has been able to do.
There is a method to Musk’s madness.
The commercial crew program in which SpaceX and Boeing build spacecraft on the government dime and operate them has thus far been successful, despite some rocky political moments. Clearly Musk’s strategy is to repeat the model on a grander scale.
Musk intends to open his mind further about his plans for Mars at a space conference in Mexico this fall. One suspects that part of it will be, in effect, a commercial Mars program with NASA as a partner and paymaster.
Musk intends to use the Red Dragon in a series of uncrewed landings on Mars starting in 2018. One suspects that a version will be developed that will take people to the surface of the Red Planet as well. Musk may offer a proposal to NASA that it will have difficulty refusing. It will go like this:
Instead of launching an expedition to Mars sometime in the 2030s, join with SpaceX to do it 10 or 12 years earlier. NASA can provide money, hardware, and expertise to the effort, which will be run by Musk’s company.
The 2024-25 expedition will likely be of a smaller scale than anything NASA is planning, but it will also come orders of magnitude cheaper and will happen much sooner.
Thus, the space agency finishes its Journey to Mars while SpaceX gains valuable experience for Musk’s long-term goal of founding a settlement on the Red Planet. Everyone wins, at least if a NASA/commercial Mars mission is what Musk has in mind. But NASA's resources and expertise combined with SpaceX's nimbleness may get people on Mars at last.