by Jeff Cunningham
On Wednesday, SpaceX announced via its social media presence that the company is sending its first mission to the red planet as soon as 2018. They intend to land an unmanned Dragon spacecraft on the surface of Mars as a demonstration and to “inform [our] overall Mars architecture.”
The mission plan, referred to as Red Dragon, is a concept that was proposed in 2011 as a potential way for the then-still-young private space company to partner with NASA and assist the agency in its goals. The idea is simple: an inexpensive Falcon rocket and Dragon spacecraft are purchased as a ready-to-go, off-the-shelf exploration mission, much like booking an all-in-one vacation package from a travel agency. At the time, it was hoped by many in the academic community that it could incorporate what would be history’s first return of Martian rock samples to waiting scientists on Earth. Now, five years later, SpaceX has announced that they’re going ahead without NASA funding.
Wait, can they do that?
In a word, yes. So long as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the government entity that monitors United States air traffic, gives the launch itself its seal of approval and clears the airspace, we’re all free to leave this planet whenever we want. There’s no binding law keeping us here on Earth.
But isn’t it expensive?
Yes, but so are a lot of other things people spend money on, like smartphones, political campaign ads, and pizza delivery– each of which is greater on average than NASA’s annual budget as of late. More to the point, though, is that SpaceX is spending its own money, without any impact to us taxpayers at all.
For their part, while sending an unmanned probe to another planet is orders of magnitude costlier than shipping a package overseas, SpaceX has literally built their business on making rockets and spaceflight cheaper. The inexpensive yet efficient Falcon launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft not only make something like this possible, but also, in a sense, make the men and women of SpaceX the most capable of an undertaking like this.
But what about NASA?
SpaceX won’t be flying this solo. They’ve entered into a “no-funds-exchanged collaboration” with NASA. In English, that means that no money has changed hands, nor have any contracts been signed. It’s a completely informal agreement where, in exchange for releasing any scientific data gathered from the surface of Mars to the public (who wouldn’t?), NASA will share its data on the planet’s atmosphere (useful for landing) as well as use of its deep space communications and telemetry.
That last part is more important than you’d think, and we’ll come back to it in a minute. For now, let’s say that having access to those resources is vital in the same sense that you can’t take a road trip to see family and friends if the government didn’t give you implicit permission to use its roads.
Will this lead to a manned mission to Mars?
Yes! The other huge announcement made by CEO Elon Musk, right on the heels of the first one, was that the data gathered by this automated landing of the Dragon II on the red planet would ultimately inform the shape of a program of manned expeditions carried out by SpaceX. The general form of that “mission architecture” as rocket scientists call it, has largely already been hammered out by SpaceX, who’s kept it close to their chest– until now. Musk also announced on social media that he will be personally revealing his company’s plan, often referred to as the Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT) system, at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara in September, finally bringing an end to years of anticipation and speculation by an eager public.
So what does this all mean for the future?
How does this all fit into the big picture, what’s the significance? Well, first, there’s the obvious headline: ordinary men and women trekking out towards the frontier on their own, a space program that’s truly for the people, by the people. The second truly wonderful and novel aspect of the coming Red Dragon mission is that, because it’s not tied to any NASA funds, for the first time in decades, nobody involved has to live in fear of the whole thing being cancelled when power inevitably changes hands in Washington, D.C. This ship will fly no matter who is elected president, and regardless of whatever budgetary decisions they make once they take office. And that’s a most welcome blessing that NASA hasn’t enjoyed since Apollo.
Lastly, this mission sets an important precedent that could define NASA’s role not only in space exploration, but in the lives of ordinary citizens everywhere. Instead of being the tollbooth on the way out, the sole arbiter of who gets to go, the agency can instead empower and support the common folk, the same way that the aforementioned FAA’s air traffic control services allow ordinary people to fly small planes all over the country whenever they want.
In this model, NASA provides that same communications backbone through a network of satellites and deep space relays connecting equally large volumes of spacecraft with each other as they fly back and forth across the Solar system– kind of a like a certain really awesome sci-fi western where even the most oppressive government takes a step back and allows the average Joe to lift off and go where he pleases (if rather inconvenienced by random inspections and hefty tolls), and provides a similar network, or “Cortex,” that allows ship-to-ship communication and the determining of one’s location in the ‘Verse.
Speaking of the ‘Verse…
There’s one last thing that can be inferred from this announcement: SpaceX is ramping up their schedule, leapfrogging themselves rather than waiting until after the successful return of the Dragon’s first manned crew next year. This could well mean that many crucial details of said mission have already been decided or are being wrapped up– things like which two out of the initial four astronauts will make the final crew selection, and what the craft’s name will be.
For those of you just joining us, Take Back the Sky is a campaign to repeat history: back in the 1970s, fans of Star Trek wrote letters to NASA and got the first space shuttle named after Enterprise. With this new craft, made by scrappy upstarts outside of government, wouldn’t it be not only cool, but all manner of fitting for the Dragon as its successor to be named Serenity?
With SpaceX making a bold push, however, we must make one, as well. If you think a real-life spacecraft named after Joss Whedon’s titular Firefly-class transport ship Serenity would be awesome, then we implore you to write a physical letter to both Elon Musk (SpaceX CEO) and Gwynne Shotwell (SpaceX President and an admitted fan of the show) to tell them that, so long as they’re up on stage talking Dragon this September, they should also announce that very same name (that is, if they haven’t done so already at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con)!
After you’ve done that (because a letter in one’s hand is harder to ignore than one in your e-mail inbox), message them on Twitter, or, for that matter, the astronauts themselves (see here for their accounts). Do all that, tell your friends, then stay tuned– if this succeeds, you can count on the biggest shindig Browncoats have seen since the theatrical debut of Serenity!