I’d like to think someone at SpaceX or NASA is reading my blog and took the last post to heart, though I could with equal validity claim to be a fire engine or the Easter Bunny.
SpaceX’s big announcement yesterday that they will be sending a Dragon capsule to Mars in (hopefully) two years clearly has been in the works for some time. They didn’t just cook that idea up last weekend over some takeout pizza and a twelve-pack of Red Bull (though from what they say about the work environment at Hawthorne, who knows?). From Aviation Week:
SpaceX and NASA wrapped up 16 months of behind-the-scenes negotiations Tuesday with an unfunded Space Act agreement to cooperate on sending an unmanned Dragon crew capsule to the surface of Mars as early as 2018.
Smart. 2018 is the next window of opportunity for a Hohmann transfer to Mars, and ought to be enough time to pull this off given SpaceX’s current state of development. They’re getting the propulsive-landing thing down pretty well and Mars access has been an intended use of Dragon 2 all along. If this works, the repercussions will be tremendous.
Falcon Heavy is probably the long pole in the tent because Red Dragon isn’t going very far if they can’t put enough weight up there to get the job done (that is, a kick stage to put Dragon on a transfer orbit). If this year’s test is successful, there are a couple more Heavy launches on next year’s manifest that would go a long way towards building confidence in their capability.
Note that NASA isn’t throwing money at them (directly at least) so this is all on Elon’s dime. But the “in kind” support they’re providing is significant, as Aviation Week reports:
…“deep space communications and telemetry; deep space navigation and trajectory design; entry, descent and landing system analysis and engineering support; Mars entry aerodynamic/aerothermal database development; general interplanetary mission and hardware consultation and advice, and planetary protection consultation and advice.”
These are subjects in which NASA has lots of expertise that SpaceX likely doesn’t have (yet). Their focus has been on the foundational work: vehicle development and operating experience, whereas this is precisely what a government space organization should be doing: figuring out the really hard, expensive stuff in an R&D role and then letting private industry run with it. It’s worth remembering that most of the airfoil designs still in use today by Boeing and others were developed by NASA’s precursor (NACA) in the 40’s and 50’s.
And if this works, there’s still time to build a hab module for that 2021 window…
Musk’s $500,000 ticket price for a Mars trip was derived from what he thinks is affordable.
“The ticket price needs to be low enough that most people in advanced countries, in their mid-forties or something like that, could put together enough money to make the trip,” he said, comparing the purchase to buying a house in California. [Photos: The First Space Tourists]
He also estimated that of the eight billion humans that will be living on Earth by the time the colony is possible, perhaps one in 100,000 would be prepared to go. That equates to potentially 80,000 migrants.
Musk figures the colony program — which he wants to be a collaboration between government and private enterprise — would end up costing about $36 billion. He arrived at that number by estimating that a colony that costs 0.25 percent or 0.5 percent of a nation’s gross domestic product (GDP) would be considered acceptable.
The United States’ GDP in 2010 was $14.5 trillion; 0.25 percent of $14.5 trillion is $36 billion. If all 80,000 colonists paid $500,000 per seat for their Mars trip, $40 billion would be raised.
“Some money has to be spent on establishing a base on Mars. It’s about getting the basic fundamentals in place,” Musk said. “That was true of the English colonies [in the Americas]; it took a significant expense to get things started. But once there are regular Mars flights, you can get the cost down to half a million dollars for someone to move to Mars. Then I think there are enough people who would buy that to have it be a reasonable business case.”
Musk also ruled out SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, which the company is developing to ferry astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit, as the spacecraft that would land colonists on the Red Planet. When asked by SPACE.com what vehicle would be used, he said, “I think you just land the entire thing.”
Asked if the “entire thing” is the huge new reusable rocket — which is rumored to bear the acronymic name MCT, short for Mass Cargo Transport or Mars Colony Transport — Musk said, “Maybe.”
Not sure why you’d want to land the whole thing on Mars, unless the booster can be used again for departure. That’s a bit of a departure from their earlier concepts, in which Dragon was designed as a true multi-purpose vehicle, up to and including Earth re-entry at Mars return velocities.
And did anyone else notice the MCT speculation? Hmm…
Wired recently interviewed Elon Musk about why he founded SpaceX and his long-term goal of settling Mars:
Anderson: And Dragon, the spacecraft you berthed with the ISS in May, has features that might eventually prepare it for a manned Mars mission.
Musk: Eventually, yes. The thrusters on Dragon are sized so they’ll be able to do launch escape—which means being able to move away from the rocket at a force of approximately 6 g’s. That same thrust level happens to be kind of a good number for supersonic retro-propulsion for landing on Mars.
There’s also a lot of myth debunking and bubble-bursting contained within, particularly in regards to the conventional wisdom on rocket construction and launch economics. But wait, there’s more!
Musk: Version two of Dragon, which should be ready in three years, should be able to do it. But really, if humanity is to become multi-planetary, the fundamental breakthrough that needs to occur in rocketry is a rapidly and completely reusable rocket. In the absence of that, space transportation will remain two orders of magnitude more expensive than it should be…
…I’d like to emphasize this is an aspiration for SpaceX—I’m not saying that we will do it. But I believe it can be done. And I believe that achieving it would be on a par with what the Wright brothers did. It’s the fundamental thing that’s necessary for humanity to become a space-faring civilization. America would never have been colonized if ships weren’t reusable.
A commenter in the last post on SpaceX’s “MCT” announcement included a link to this graphic:
Thanks Adros47! And…DA-YUM. Those things are monsters.
I dug a little more and found the full article from 2010 at Spaceref here. It includes an embedded link to another piece at Aviation Week, but the link seems to have expired. I’ll keep rooting around the interwebs and will post more if I find it.
And for the record, I’m standing by my “Mars Crew Transport” statement:
Unveiling conceptual plans for a family of Falcon X and XX future heavy-lift vehicles at last week’s AIAA Joint Propulsion conference here, SpaceX McGregor rocket development facility director Tom Markusic said, “Mars is the ultimate goal of SpaceX.”
Yeah, what he said!
UPDATE: Lots of talk about this at NASASpaceflight.com, and not all of it’s nice. Plenty of honest speculation, sprinkled with a healthy dose of carping and pedantic nitpicking. But do check out the back-of-the-envelope specs in a pdf at the linked post.
Also sounds like “MCT” refers to the engine, not the launcher itself. Which might throw cold water on my “Mars Crew Transport” theory. I’m also reminded that they frequently referred to their Saturn V – class ideas as “BFR”. Which I guess means Big Fuzzy Rocket. Or something like that…
As if manned space capsules and reusable boosters weren’t enough…but what is “MCT”? Some tantalizing bits from Flight Global:
Musk said the new rocket, which he calls MCT, will be “several times” as powerful as the 1 Merlin series, and won’t use Merlin’s RP-1 fuel. Beyond adding that it will have “a very big core size”, he declined to elaborate, promising more details in “between one and three years”.
Musk declined to say what ‘MCT’ stands for, and declined to answer further questions on the project.
During an April interview, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell discussed a project with similar characteristics, describing engines with “more than 1.5 million pounds” of thrust.
That would be equivalent to the behemoth F-1. With multiple engines arranged in a booster core 21 meters in diameter, that’s a bigger vehicle than the Saturn V.
Now for the really important part:
Shotwell said a possible payload range of the new rocket is 150-200t to low Earth orbit (LEO). A vehicle of that size would easily eclipse NASA‘s proposed Space Launch System, which will eventually be capable of launching 130t to LEO, making SpaceX’s potential vehicle the most capable ever built by a wide margin.
Note the low side of that estimate is 150 metric tons to LEO, compared to the Saturn’s throw weight of a shade less than 130mt. I’m excluding SLS because it will probably never evolve beyond vaporware.
Ho-lee crap. So, connecting the dots, SpaceX is developing a heavy booster that will be bigger and more capable than a Saturn V. Given their track record so far, I’ve no reason to doubt their success. Mr. Musk has hinted at this in the past, noting that Falcon 9-Heavy would not be the end of the line for them. Considering his oft-stated long term goals, I’ll risk future embarrassment and take a guess at what “MCT” might stand for: