Today, Elon Musk suggested that SpaceX will abandon its plans to land the company’s Dragon capsule on Mars — a mission the company had been aiming to do as early as 2020.
SpaceX will not fully develop the landing technique it was going to use to land the Dragon on Mars. Known as the Red Dragon mission, the capsule was meant to lower itself to solid ground using engines embedded in its hull, and then touch down gently on landing legs in a method known as propulsive landing. But Musk said the company will come up with another way to land vehicles on the Martian surface.
“There was a time when I thought that the Dragon approach to landing on Mars… would be the right way to land on Mars,” Musk said at the ISS R&D Conference in Washington, DC today. “But now I’m pretty confident that is not the right way. There’s a far better approach. That’s what the next generation of SpaceX rockets and spacecraft is going to do.” Musk did not explain what that approach would be, though, or which vehicles the company would try to land on Mars in the future.
The decision means SpaceX’s Dragon capsules will stick to landing with parachutes here on Earth, too. That’s the current method SpaceX uses to land its cargo Dragon capsule, a version of the vehicle used to deliver supplies to and from the International Space Station. The company has been working on an updated version of the capsule called Dragon 2 that will eventually carry people back and forth from the ISS, and SpaceX hoped to have that vehicle land propulsively with people on board. Musk said now that’s not going happen, since the company will not be adding landing legs to the Dragon 2.
Safety concerns prompted SpaceX to abandon the concept for Dragon 2. Specifically, Musk said that “it would have taken a tremendous amount of effort to qualify that for safety” with NASA. But it’s not clear if safety was the main reason for not landing the Dragon on Mars, too. The propulsive landing technique may have simply been too difficult to develop for carrying a crew on the Dragon, so SpaceX decided to just go with parachutes. It wouldn’t then make sense to use the Dragon to land on Mars.
Musk said the Dragon 2 will still be capable of landing propulsively, though. That’s because the engines it would need to do the landing will still be installed on the capsule. The engines are crucial for the Dragon’s abort system: they can fire up if there’s an emergency during launch and carry the capsule — and its crew — up and away to safety. However without landing legs, landing with the engines would be extra difficult to pull off. “You’d have to land it on some pretty soft landing pad,” he said.
Of course, Musk did hint that SpaceX has not completely abandoned this landing concept, and that the company could bring it back later, but “it doesn’t seem like the right [way] to apply resources right now.”
Musk also announced that he may update his Mars colonization plans at the upcoming International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, this September. He didn’t say much about what has changed except that the huge rocket SpaceX hopes to build for the endeavor is going to be a little bit smaller than its original design.
Musk also brought up another rocket that SpaceX has been working on for many years: the Falcon Heavy. The vehicle, which is essentially three Falcon 9 cores strapped together, is supposed to fly for the first time later this year. But Musk made sure to lower people’s expectations about the rocket’s first flight. He’d consider the flight a success if it doesn’t burn up the launchpad; the Falcon Heavy likely won’t reach orbit during its maiden voyage, according to Musk. He also had an adjective for the customers whose payloads are slated to fly on the Falcon Heavy’s first flight: “brave.”