Space

SpaceX Foots the Bill for 2018 Mission to Mars

Elon Musk is working with NASA to hustle an unmanned mission to the Red Planet. But he's writing the checks.

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SpaceX announced plans to send an unmanned capsule to Mars by 2018 on Twitter yesterday:

Right now, Dragon capsules ferry cargo to the International Space Station as part of a $5.5 billion contract with NASA. But SpaceX founder Elon Musk has made it clear that the capsules are built for more than just hauling shipments of astronaut ice cream, tweeting that "Dragon 2 is designed to be able to land anywhere in the solar system. Red Dragon Mars mission is the first test flight….But wouldn't recommend transporting astronauts beyond Earth-moon region. Wouldn't be fun for longer journeys. Internal volume ~size of SUV."

Space X

Veronique de Rugy labels Musk a crony capitalist in her column today, noting (quite correctly) that companies he has founded have received many billions in federal taxpayer dollars, state incentives, and more.

But it's worth highlighting that for this ambitious 2018 mission, Musk is footing the bill—despite some warm, fuzzy press releases about partnering with NASA.

One might consider some of those private funds his firm is spending on the mission ill-gotten gains, I suppose. But SpaceX has delivered the services it promised for those NASA billions so far; though not without the occasional mishap. And the company has done so under a type of contract that keeps much more of the incentives to behave like a profit-maximizing private actor (rather than an old-school appendage of the bloated space agency, like Boeing or Lockheed) intact.

The Washington Post reports that NASA will providing only "technical assistance" for this first unmanned mission to Mars, quoting space historian John Logsdon saying that "NASA has more expertise in getting to and landing on Mars than any other organization in the world….So if a U.S. company wants to try it on a no-exchange-of-funds basis, why not?"

For a while now, Musk has been beefing with science celeb Neil deGrasse Tyson about whether a Mars mission is an appropriate undertaking for a private entrepreneur. Last fall, Tyson said "The delusion is thinking that SpaceX is going to lead the space frontier. That's just not going to happen." Calling a Mars mission too time-consuming and expensive, Tyson declared: "A government has a much longer horizon over which it can make investments."

But, as space journalist Alan Boyle notes in GeekWire, Musk seems perfectly cheerful about the expense and rather more optimistic than Tyson about the time horizon. He's been pretty clear about how he hopes to overcome commercial pressure to think short term—the company will remain privately held for now.

"When we're doing regular flights to Mars, that might be a good time to go public," he said. "But before then, because the long-term goals of SpaceX are really long term—it takes a long time to build a city on Mars—that doesn't match with the short-term time frame of public shareholders and portfolio managers that are looking at the two- to four-year time horizon."

In other words, Musk thinks that this insanely huge undertaking will be good for his business in the long term. So much so that he's putting up cash now and delaying the big payday that would come with going public.

And frankly, it's hard to doubt the sincerity of a man who has said repeatedly over many years that he hopes to die on Mars (though ideally not at the point of impact).

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  1. Wait, didn’t we just go over this?

    1. Yes. WSJ haD A VERY INTERSTING ARTICLE ABOUT IT YESTERDAY.
      I don’t know if investing in accompany where the principle borrows from one company to invest carries the hallmarks of security. Perfectly legal but investors should start watching tesla even closer.

    1. This guy is a sure thing for a bailout.

    2. *applauds*

  2. Can you guys just make up your mind already?

    1. There’s potato farmin’ tabee dun!

      1. MARTIAN DAMON!

      2. SAPIEEEEEE

        I haven’t seen you lately. Have you been gone? Or maybe I have.

  3. But he’s writing the checks.

    Technically, the taxpayers already wrote those checks.

    1. Yes. It’s a form of money laundering. And for what? Whitey on the moon. Or in this case, for whitey on Mars.

      1. The first person to utter a racial epithet on Mars has already been born.

    2. Again, i don’t blame the guy for taking advantage of subsidies put in place by POLITICIANS that he had no control over…

      1. It is possible to blame them both equally for their parasitism.

      2. I don’t think Musk is particularly ideological. He’s just a man with a goal, and he’s prepared to use all available means to realize it.

        I can’t say his use of public funds particularly bothers me. It’s not like the taxpayers have any chance of getting any of it back, and space flight is as good of a waste of taxpayer money as any.

        1. “I don’t think Musk is particularly ideological.” WOW! Is that an understatement, or what?

          And speaking of lack of principles: “I can’t say his use of public funds particularly bothers me. It’s not like the taxpayers have any chance of getting any of it back, and space flight is as good of a waste of taxpayer money as any.”

  4. The fact that he’s feuding with Tyson makes me like him a bit more.

    1. Orly? Do tell.

    2. Tyson is anti-religion. More specifically, he is “Government as God”. Musk is an existential threat to that way of thinking.

    3. This. Anyone who goes up against Neil DeGrasse Smug gets bonus points in my book.

    4. Tyson’s an idiot on economic issues. Yes, the government has a longer time horizon – which is why we went from powered flight to the moon in 2 generations and haven’t left LEO in the 2 generations since.

  5. Isn’t the atmosphere on mars around 95%? It’s GOT to be too hot there. All the ice caps must have melted and all the polar bears are dead. Why, right now it’s a balmy -67 F.

    1. * 95% CO2

    2. I’m pretty sure you’re right about the polar bears.

    3. Density matters too. Yes, it’s 95% CO2, but also at a fraction of the density of our atmosphere. That and it’s ~2.5X further from the sun.

      I’m as big an AGW skeptic as anyone here, but pointing out that Mars’ atmosphere is mostly TEH EVUL CO2 and it’s not warm so therefore CO2 doesn’t cause global warming – if that was your intent – is a pretty retarded argument. Please don’t sink to the same level of idiocy as the AGW cultists.

      1. I was trying to be sarcastic… hence the polar bears.

        The AGW crowd uses such simplistic arguments as “we broke a temperature record for the day in Capetown Africa, so that proves Global Warming is real!”.

        It sounded funny in my head, but that’s not a very accurate gauge.

        Cheers!

        1. *bangs on side of sarcasm meter*

          Damn thing’s broken again!

          1. Well, if you’d stop smacking it against things . . .

            1. Just like a Reason forumite to blame the victim.

      2. Seem to remember a sciencee article a few years back about temps going up on Mars. In theory, the result of the sun being hotter…or aliens idling their internal combustion space craft while they relieved themselves before resuming their road trips.

    4. All Musk has to do is land a couple of astronauts. They go into the tunnel complex and activate the atmosphere creation button, melt all that stored ice and in less than 5 minutes – Earth 2.0.

      1. Right, but remember, without a significant satellite and rotating/magnetic core; everyone gets to live as mutants until the solar storm rip the atmosphere from the planet (again).

  6. While he says he is footing the bill, this seems to be a publicity stunt. And I would bet it is to get Congress to open its pocketbook.

    If he was really interested in building a self sustaining colony on Mars, he would be focused on spending the millions necessary to land on the moon, or create a fuel depot in high earth orbit. The latter would be a real business- used by governments and corporations around the world.

    Landing on Mars is a prestige maneuver for Nations. There is nothing to be gained other than more government graft.

    1. Who says he is not?

      The reality is a Fuel Depot in Geosynchronous orbit is a prerequisite to any Mars mission, however it does not have anywhere near as many technical questions to be solved as mars missions do and so this capsule to Mars is a good first test of Falcon Heavy and several other of the technologies needed to get to Mars.

      Meanwhile along other avenues once Falcon Heavy is proven they can start working on other orbital technologies to be deployed in the 2020 – 2030 timeframe

      1. And yet all the technical questions around landing a small capsule on Mars get even more complicated once you add people to the mix. As noted in the article, this is a tiny piece of hardware compared to what would be necessary to actually get people to the site. The design differences for this mission vs a real manned mission are so vast as to preclude this from even being called a proof of concept.

        I guarantee you, the whole purpose of landing this small craft on Mars is for headlines that say “Musk landed a capsule capable of sustaining a crew”. It is all for government dollars.

    2. If he was really interested in building a self sustaining colony on Mars, he would be focused . . .

      On the completely wrong thing.

      There’s no reason whatsoever to colonize Mars. There’s not any reason to colonize the Moon either (150 million tons of regolith to get one tone of He3). We’d be far better served, from a colonization perspective, with free-moving habitats in the Asteroid belt and later the Oort cloud. Phobos and Deimos – could be useful to put a station near them to mine for volatiles and use Mars as a transfer point to the outer system, but it would be crazy to spend all that energy to get out of *this* gravity well just to jump down another one.

      Once you’re in Earth orbit you’re halfway to *anywhere* – don’t throw that advantage away.

      1. Moreover, the only reason to colonize Mars or Venus would be biological. And, while I’m not strictly opposed to lugging meat all over the solar system, I expect there will quickly come a point where hauling most, if not all, meat around the system would be absurdly wasteful if not counterproductive. Once the first human has died on Mars, why would anyone bother leaving Earth to experience living in a metal tube?

        A little like knowingly building an interstate highway system to last the next 100+ yrs. when you know the internet is right around the corner.

        1. Well, we have the internet now. The interstate highway system is still kind of useful, and will be for the foreseeable future.

          1. An interstate highway system is still kind of useful. Ours is more like a white elephant. It’s what one should expect from a centrally planned economic good.

      2. Oort cloud? WTF? You can make a stable and essentially self-sustaining biosphere on mars. Stations require constant maintenance and have bigger radiation problems. Why do we want to be sitting all the way out in the oort? Or the belt for that matter. Belt stations only need to be there as material processing hubs and even then it’s a bit iffy.

        1. Most of the radiation problems in space will be there on Mars as well. The planet lacks a magnetosphere and so gets a lot of radiation. You could dig deep into the Martian surface to have underground safe zones, or hope that the next big solar storm hits while your colony isn’t facing the sun. But now you are spending money to get material down to the surface that you could have used to harden a space station or mine mineral rich asteroids.

          The Oort cloud is waaaaaaay far away, so the radiation it receives from our resident radiation maker (the sun) is significantly reduced (r^2 for the win!) by the time it gets to the Oort cloud. Not that I think the Oort cloud is a sensible 1st step. It is massive. The distances between useable material (dwarf planets, comets, asteroids, etc) are similar if not greater than the distances between Mars and Earth.

          1. Any long lived colony needs to produce enough to be self sufficient or produce a surplus of something that they can export to get the stuff they need. So the first question is- can Mars sustain itself? Unlikely. So next question- what does Mars have that other human habitats (including Earth) do not?

            Mars has lots of regolith, but not much else that we know of. But assuming they can access something useful, where is the comparative advantage? You could spend all the money to get stuff to Mars then get the regolith (or other product) from Mars back into orbit, or you could establish a base on the Moon or numerous near-earth asteroids to produce similar raw materials. The Moon and NEAs have much of the same stuff, but cost orders of magnitude less to access. Thus we should start there.

            Essentially, Musk is like someone talking about a settlement in California when no one can even reliably cross the Mississippi River.

            I like these Moo- er “Mars Shots” as much as any space enthusiast, but I personally think it would be better to get people excited about the amazing things we can do in orbit soon, not do one-off shots of useless junk to a planet we can’t realistically touch without a good cis-lunar infrastructure.

          2. You don’t have to go that far down. And dirt is cheap.

          3. I would suggest that we’re much closer to curing cancer and mitigating radiation exposure than building space colonies.

            I do agree that a rotating space stations makes more sense than a low-G base on Mars or the Moon. They can be located anywhere that it makes economic sense to put them.

        2. A hollowed out, rotating asteroid provides excellent radiation shielding, a modest amount of fake gravity, and lots of raw materials. They are far better stepping stones into space than Mars or Venus.

      3. +7 m/s

  7. A government has a much longer horizon over which it can make investments

    *Le sigh*

    Even if that turns out to be true, what’s wrong with a private company spending it’s own money to put to the test? C’mon, Neil.

    1. Tyson is amazingly stupid, for an otherwise very smart man.

      Which is what happens when practically any scientist opens his pie hole about politics and/or gubmint.

    2. Even if that turns out to be true, what’s wrong with a private company spending it’s own money to put to the test? C’mon, Neil.

      It’s wrong because it flies in the face of his blind assertions about government, property and human nature.

  8. Footing the bill for what? Is he going to use the heavy 2nd stage to do the trans-martian injection? He needs something to get him out of leo.

    1. Is he going to use the heavy 2nd stage to do the trans-martian injection?

      Probably. Presumably he’s just sending an empty Dragon capsule, modified to land on Mars. If a Falcon 9 can launch a Dragon cargo capsule to the ISS, then it wouldn’t surprise me if a Falcon 9 Heavy could lob one into a Hohmann transfer trajectory to Mars.

      As Overt alluded to above, this is kind of a publicity stunt. I suspect he’s trying to show that a modified Dragon can land on Mars, but of course in order to send people they’ll need a lot more in space infrastructure. Earth-Mars transfer vehicle, orbiting fuel depots, modular Mars habitats, etc, etc. Perhaps he’s hoping after demonstrating that the Dragon can get to Mars and land safely then NASA/ Congress will open up their checkbooks and start “investing” in the aforementioned infrastructure. IDK

      1. It would have to be a heavy. And even then I’m not sure. And will je just aerobrake or does he need to shed some deltav for capture?

        1. According to Wikipedia SpaceX claims that the Falcon Heavy can get around 13 tons to Mars. Since a Dragon Capsule is less than 5 tons dry, that leaves a good amount of tonnage that can be spent on re-entry gear and the dV necessary to begin descent into the Martian atmosphere.

  9. But it’s worth highlighting that for this ambitious 2018 mission, Musk is footing the bill?despite some warm, fuzzy press releases about partnering with NASA.

    Sure, just like Tata is ‘spending its own money’ on Port Talbert. *If* the government takes on the existing pension obligations, pays for the new furnace, gives them a tax break, *then* Tata will toss in some of its own money.

    And given the cost of a Mars mission (and that there’s no money to be made there yet – except through government contracts to go there) I don’t see SpaceX doing any different.

    And at no part in this article is there even a single link to data – just assertions based on press releases.

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  11. Tyson said “The delusion is thinking that SpaceX is going to lead the space frontier. That’s just not going to happen.” Calling a Mars mission too time-consuming and expensive, Tyson declared: “A government has a much longer horizon over which it can make investments.”

    And this is why Tyson is a science *commentator* – he doesn’t know what an investment is and doesn’t understand that private industry *routinely* looks 30+years into the future (unlike government which is focused on the next scandal or election, whichever is closer).

    1. Tyson is also utterly ignorant of history. He believes that Columbus’ voyage was somehow comparable to space exploration and financed by something equivalent to Congress and NASA. In reality, it was largely privately financed, privately insured, and fairly cheap.

  12. According to the guardian, due to climate change…the 1 percenters are going to leave us on earth to die while they colonize Mars. Makes total sense!!

    1. Ok.

    2. “I will name my first city, Elysium.” – Elon

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  15. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a overrated, statist, court scientist, I just don’t get it. I watched his show “Cosmos” sure he made it interesting, when he wasn’t twisting certain aspects of history or science to suit his agenda and make no mistake about it, he has a agenda. Its to get the government to steal more money to fund his pet projects, not only that, he doesn’t want the pressure or stress of competing in a free market. Fuck him, fuck him and the bow tie wearing, fascist asshole Bill Nye, the not so great guy, who told my ex girlfriend and her little sister when they were kids to fuck off when they asked for a autograph. Yeah fuck them both, court scientist fuckwads who have no problem being gagged by the government’s cock, in fact they want more.

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