Space News reported that more details have emerged about NASA’s cooperation with the SpaceX Red Dragon mission to Mars, courtesy of Jim Reuter, deputy associate administrator for programs in NASA’s space technology mission directorate. The support arrangement will come in the form of a Space Act agreement that will not involve any money changing hands between the space agency and SpaceX. However, NASA will spend $32 million over four years in personnel costs providing technical support for the project.

SpaceX has announced that it will send a modified version of its Dragon spacecraft, called Red Dragon, to Mars. It will be launched on a Falcon Heavy rocket and will use a technique called supersonic retropropulsion to land on the Red Planet. NASA is keen to get the data on the landing technology as it views it as an essential technique for landing large payloads such as crewed vehicles on Mars.

SpaceX has not revealed how much the mission will cost, but Reuter has heard that the company is spending ten times the amount of money NASA is, placing the level in the range of $300 million.

Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, has long dreamed of founding a colony on Mars. The 2018 Red Dragon mission is the first step of the private Mars program that will also include people landing on the Red Planet as early as the 2024-25 timeframe. By contrast, NASA is planning its Journey to Mars mission sometime in the 2030s. Musk has promised to reveal more details of his Mars program at a conference in Mexico later in 2016.

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Reuter has started that no discussions have taken place about cooperation between NASA and SpaceX beyond the 2018 Red Dragon mission. Musk is planning two more uncrewed Red Dragons in 2020 and then 2022 before attempting to send people to Mars. Eventually, he envisions a gigantic “Mars Colonial Transport” taking Mars colonists to their new home on the Red Planet.

If the 2018 mission succeeds, pressure on NASA to merge its Journey to Mars with SpaceX’s program, even to the extent of using the commercial space company to outsource the effort, will without a doubt increase.

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