Help Shape the Future of Space Exploration

Join The Planetary Society Now  arrow.png

Join our eNewsletter for updates & action alerts

    Please leave this field empty
Blogs

Casey Profile Picture Thumbnail

What NASA Can Learn from SpaceX

A man, a plan, Mars

Posted by Casey Dreier

28-04-2016 11:42 CDT

Topics: commercial spaceflight, opinion, Space Policy, Future Mission Concepts, human spaceflight, Mars

There were two important stories about Mars this week, one highly visible, the other not; one good, the other bad. Both were revealing, though one unintentionally so.

We learned that SpaceX plans to send uncrewed Dragon capsules to Mars starting in 2018. We also learned that NASA has effectively mothballed its technology program for landing large payloads on the surface of Mars.

Both stories demonstrate the advantage of having a clear goal and executable plan for Mars exploration. SpaceX has a goal of settling Mars and they have a plan to do so, even if it’s not fully public. NASA, despite its Journey to Mars rhetoric, does not. NASA has an ambition for Mars, but no clear path to achieve it.

The Planetary Society has raised this issue before. In fact, it was one of the most important findings from our Humans Orbiting Mars report last year. We recommended that NASA commit to a plan so it can prioritize technology development, integrate near-term human and robotic spaceflight activities, and provide a benchmark for progress. In the absence of an executable plan, it is nearly impossible to properly define your priorities. How can NASA defend the Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) to land heavy payloads on Mars when it was never clear how LDSC would factor into the Journey to Mars?

Now let’s take a look at SpaceX.

SpaceX wants to send people to Mars. That’s hard and expensive, and it needs to develop that capability and technology without bankrupting itself. SpaceX generates profits from selling launches on the Falcon 9 and also receives NASA funding to develop crew launch capability to the International Space Station.

Here’s the Dragon V2, the spacecraft that will carry humans to low-Earth orbit:

Space X's Dragon V2

SpaceX

Space X's Dragon V2
The Dragon V2 crew vehicle, as unveiled at SpaceX's headquarters in May of 2014.

An interesting feature of the Dragon V2 is that it will attempt soft landings back on Earth with its new SuperDracro engines (it will also use parachutes). Here’s what this technology looks like right now:

Now, SpaceX doesn’t need to develop this technology to safely return astronauts back to Earth. Its competition, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner, just uses old fashioned parachutes. So why is SpaceX putting in the time, effort, and money?

Because of the goal.

Note this artist’s concept that SpaceX released with yesterday’s Mars announcement:

SpaceX's Red Dragon Entering the Martian Atmosphere

SpaceX

SpaceX's Red Dragon Entering the Martian Atmosphere
Artist's concept.

It certainly looks like the Red Dragon will be using SuperDraco thrusters for its Mars entry, descent, and landing (EDL). That’s a new way to land on Mars—one without parachutes, and potentially able to scale up to much larger spacecraft. In fact, according to NASA’s Space Act Agreement with SpaceX, the company will share its EDL information with NASA to help inform future technology development.

Also note this artistic concept of Red Dragon on the surface:

SpaceX's Red Dragon on Mars

SpaceX

SpaceX's Red Dragon on Mars
Artist's concept.

It basically looks like the Dragon V2, which, again, SpaceX is already developing for access to the space station.

This sort of thing is not new for SpaceX. Its ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars drives the requirements that define the technology it develops in the interim. It can succeed in its near-term goals, like crew access to the space station, while leveraging its hardware development with an eye toward destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, avoiding expensive and unknown crash course technology programs further down the road.

NASA, by not committing to a Mars plan, cannot prioritize which technology it needs to be developing now. This means everything is important and nothing is important. It can’t point to a critical pathway beyond a very general sense, and that’s a dangerous position to be in.

Of course, SpaceX has the luxury of being its own, privately-held company. It doesn’t have Congress dictating its funding and its direction. NASA is forced to make many hard choices when faced with budget shortfalls and multiple directives from Congress and the White House. But, absent a plan, how will it make those decisions? And how will those decisions echo down the decades as NASA moves forward with its own exploration hardware?

We won’t know, but having a plan against which we can measure progress might be helpful.

 
See other posts from April 2016

 

Or read more blog entries about: commercial spaceflight, opinion, Space Policy, Future Mission Concepts, human spaceflight, Mars

Comments:

Paul: 04/28/2016 12:19 CDT

It is important to note that landing a Dragon capsule, while being an important achievement, does not constitute a plan for exploration of Mars. There are several more HUGE items that need to be dealt with. These include but are not limited to: habitation and supplies for humans in space while in route, in space propulsion of the hab, landing system for large items (>10 tons), habitation system on Mars, All of the associated technologies for keeping people alive and healthy, Mars ascent stage, etc. So while I enjoy bashing NASA too, it is a little unfair when they are dealing with everything else, and SpaceX has only put together plans for one relatively small item of the whole thing. If it was decided today to spend the money necessary to put people on Mars, NASA could probably do it, the problem has always been how to do it affordably - which is a lot harder.

pkuhns: 04/28/2016 01:50 CDT

'SpaceX generates profits from selling launches on the Falcon 9' Well, we don't actually *know* whether they make a profit...

Torbjörn Larsson: 04/28/2016 04:24 CDT

I am constantly amazed by the demands from various places that NASA should commit to a firm plan. It was the analysis of the Augustine Report that such a strategy would see to it that NASA never reached Mars, and instead the proposed the Flexible Path strategy that NASA (if not the current administration) seems to follow closely. It is an audacious move from Musk, that reuse the 2-3 used Dragon 2 he will get from the next NASA Crew contract to ISS, and show the capacity of the new Falcon Heavy, and accelerate the learning curve into deep space. The Red Dragon concept by Larry Lemke, showcased in a SETI Tall video [ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZoSKHzziLKw ], shows that it will put 1 mt of net mass onto Mars. SpaceX will probably tru a Sabatier reactor for methane fuel production, which is a key technique needed to get the Mars Colonial Transport refueled for the return trip.

Torbjörn Larsson: 04/28/2016 04:29 CDT

@Paul:: "landing system for large items (>10 tons)". The beauty of the Dragon 2 system is that the red Dragon landing concept scales all the way up to the 100 mt, 10-12 m diameter heat shield Mars Colonial transport, which like Red Dragon can't waste fuel but will aerobrake. This is a clear difference to NASA, that introduces limited scalability at each landed mass range. If you haven't watched Lemke's presentation yet, the landing concept is now fairly well proven in parts by Apollo and Falcon 9. The Red Dragon will enter the atmosphere shallowly over the northern plain, there the atmosphere pressure will eventually rise to Apollo high atmosphere high speed Moon entry levels, Like Apollo the RD will skip, at which time it will invert lift and follow the surface for 1000 km; luckily the plain is some 3500 km IIRC. When it looses lift at Mach 2 it will do a supersonic retroburn and land. (Much safer than the Falcon 9 1st stage that has a T/W > 1 problem and must do a "just so" hoverslam that places it at zero altitude with zero velocity.) "SpaceX has only put together plans for one relatively small item of the whole thing." I hear Musk has said he will present the whole martian colony technology concept at a seminar in November (December?). The Dragon 2 landing concept is over 10 years old, IIRC he has said he put it together 2003.

Stephen: 04/28/2016 09:19 CDT

@Casey: “Both stories demonstrate the advantage of having a clear goal and executable plan for Mars exploration." Um, what plan? SpaceX may well have one filed away somewhere but thus far it has yet to be revealed to the rest of us (albeit Quartz is reporting that SpaceX intends "to provide details for the company’s 'colonisation architecture,'...later this year"; it remains to be seen, though, what kind of details will be provided). @Casey: “NASA, by not committing to a Mars plan, cannot prioritize which technology it needs to be developing now. This means everything is important and nothing is important.” That is being unfair to NASA. Drawing up plans for a manned Mars program which has neither been funded by Congress nor supported by the President would be an exercise in futility. The reality is that those sorts of decisions are made by the Administration, not NASA. NASA can draw up all the plans it likes but without funding they will never fly. AFAIK the last time NASA actually drew up such a one was back in 1989 under George HW Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative. Unfortunately, Congress refused to fund it, so it died an early death. One further point. I notice you don’t mention the launch vehicle SpaceX will (presumably) be using to send the craft to Mars, Reports are saying that that rocket will be the Falcon Heavy, Unfortunately, it has not yet been tested. It’s first flight is not due until November this year. Since SpaceX has a history of rockets going up in one piece and coming down in several, it may well take several goes to get it right, which in turn raises the question of whether it will be ready in time for a 2018 launch. (The last thing anyone would want would be for the Mars launch itself to be one of those which went up in blaze of glory but came back down in a shower of pieces.)

Jim R: 04/28/2016 11:30 CDT

NASA doesn't want to have a plan, since a plan would expose some of its programs as unsustainable. The NRC report shows in the very best case scenario, assuming NASA HSF budget increases with inflation at 2.5%, they wouldn't be able to land on Mars until 2040. If NASA acknowledge this, it would raise questions as why, and what can we do about it, which naturally led to some of the big programs in danger of being cancelled. NASA's goal as informally mandated by congress' budget appropriation is never about Mars, it's about keeping jobs in certain states and centers. So they're, in a sense, executing the correct plan to achieve this goal. Moral of the story: Before having a plan, first check if you have the right goal.

Stephen: 04/29/2016 05:15 CDT

@Jim R: “NASA doesn't want to have a plan, since a plan would expose some of its programs as unsustainable.” Kind of a vague accusation. Which programs are you alluding to? @Jim R: “The NRC report shows in the very best case scenario, assuming NASA HSF budget increases with inflation at 2.5%, they wouldn't be able to land on Mars until 2040.” NASA will not be landing people on Mars PERIOD unless and until Congress and the Administration give it the go ahead to mount such a program. NASA spends its budget the way it is told to by Congress and AFAIK there is as yet no money being allocated for manned Mars missions (not counting paper studies and some technology work). At the moment NASA really only has one HSF program and that is the ISS. True, there is Orion and the SLS but at the moment NASA is building those without any programs to use them with in the longer term (not counting Obama’s lunar orbiting asteroid mission, which is at best a single shot sop to quiet critics over the loss of Constellation; barring miracles, expect to see it vanish once Obama leaves office). If and well the ISS is de-orbited (as will probably happen, barring a miracle, sometime in the 2020s) expect to see its funding also vanish from the federal budget. Once that happens American HSF will effectively come to an end—barring a miracle. Orion and the SLS will then become white elephants which will probably be (eventually) discontinued as well. Bottomline: NASA can draw up all the plans it likes, but without a go-ahead from its political bosses in the Administration plus money from Capitol Hill it will not be sending people to Mars or anywhere else, and at the moment none of those seem to be on the horizon. People in Washington keep talking about wanting to send Americans to Mars but the money and political will necessary to achieve it have yet to materialise.

PhillyJimi: 04/29/2016 10:22 CDT

This an over simplification but the cold reality is NASA can't fart without approval and funding from congress. The majority of congress wants a kickback that benefits their districts/states before they will approve anything. SX on the other hand is much more free to do what they want. They are going to have plenty of used Dragons and used Falcon 9's they can use to test a landing on Mars. SX doesn't need to seek approval and funding from Congress to do most of this. Again Congress people really don't care about going to Mars, they just want to direct the high paying jobs a Mars mission would create into their states. If the project takes twice as long and cost 3 times more then was budgeted they secretly are very happy since it only keeps those jobs in their state.

Casey Dreier: 04/29/2016 11:18 CDT

Paul: "It is important to note that landing a Dragon capsule, while being an important achievement, does not constitute a plan for exploration of Mars. There are several more HUGE items that need to be dealt with. These include but are not limited to: habitation and supplies for humans in space while in route, in space propulsion of the hab, landing system for large items (>10 tons), habitation system on Mars, All of the associated technologies for keeping people alive and healthy, Mars ascent stage, etc." Absolutely true, though from what I understand SpaceX does have plans that aren't public. But again, by having a clear goal, that helps them (over)engineer technology for use now that they know they will need in the future. It helps determine priorities. "So while I enjoy bashing NASA too, it is a little unfair when they are dealing with everything else, and SpaceX has only put together plans for one relatively small item of the whole thing." There is plenty of NASA-bashing on the internet, and this wasn't meant to add to that. NASA has been reluctant, for many reasons discussed in these comments, to commit to even a skeletal plan for human Mars exploration. There is a real value to that in how they prioritize their near-term plans, like whether or not to continue the LDSD development program. But yes, absolutely NASA has a not more to deal with and a lot more people dictating what they do. "f it was decided today to spend the money necessary to put people on Mars, NASA could probably do it, the problem has always been how to do it affordably - which is a lot harder." That is the essence of it, isn't it? Our Humans Orbiting Mars report took a look at one promising pathway that takes into account the myriad complexities of NASA: http://hom.planetary.org

Casey Dreier: 04/29/2016 11:20 CDT

pkuhns: That's true, but the reasons may be more complex. Don't forget, Amazon rarely makes a profit either–not because they're a failing business but because they reinvest all of their revenue into the business. And they have shareholders to answer to!

Casey Dreier: 04/29/2016 11:30 CDT

Stephen: Your skepticism is warranted, and it's up to SpaceX to demonstrate the reliability of the Falcon Heavy and Dragon beyond LEO. The Red Dragon concept is really akin to their first-stage booster return project: think of it as series of technology demonstrations. Failure is very possible, but I'm glad they're trying. I do disagree with your statement regarding NASA's lack of support for defining a Mars plan. Mars is the agreed-upon goal of Congress (from the 2010 NASA Auth act) the White House's national space policy, and the NRC's most recent report on human spaceflight. NASA itself declares they are on a "Journey to Mars" which they wouldn't be able to say without implicit White House approval. Congress is strongly urging NASA clarify their plans (http://spacenews.com/congress-seeks-more-details-on-nasas-mars-plans-as-presidential-transition-looms/) as is the NASA Advisory Council. I don't think it's an issue of Congress not being supportive at this point (of course, that could change when dollars come into play).

Casey Dreier: 04/29/2016 11:33 CDT

Eric Berger at ArsTechnica adds more details to how SpaceX's plan for Mars informs its current activities and efforts. Lots of great info here: http://arstechnica.com/science/2016/04/spacex-has-already-demonstrated-its-key-mars-landing-tech-with-the-falcon-9/

Torbjörn Larsson: 04/29/2016 04:47 CDT

@Stephen: "not counting Obama’s lunar orbiting asteroid mission, which is at best a single shot sop to quiet critics over the loss of Constellation". It is NASAs suggestion, taken from Flexible Path towards Mars. "Once that happens American HSF will effectively come to an end". Well, if US can gve up their bigoted view of working with Russia but not China, they are welcome to join the ESA/China (perhaps India) drive for a lunar station.

dougforworldsexplr: 04/29/2016 11:38 CDT

Although the SpaceX spacecraft especially if they can reuse the boosters will be a lot cheaper than the Space Launch System and Orion and although it is true that the Space Launch System hasn't flown yet and is subject to the requests of the president and congress etc. yet even the less powerful version of the Space Launch System that is currently being built to be tested is more than sufficient to fly astronauts to the surface of the Moon and not just to lunar orbit since it has similar size and thrust to the Apollo rocket that certainly succeeded in getting astronauts to the Moon. My question is what consideration is there being given by either President Obama, Congress or remaining presidential candidates or the scientific community in the US or partners in Europe or elsewhere to develop a descent/ascent module to the surface of the Moon from lunar orbit similar to the lunar module and find a place to fit it at the top of the Space Launch System with the Orion capsule like was done with the lunar module and the command module at the top of the Apollo rocket. It seems to me this would allow NASA to use the Space Launch System and part of Orion to get astronauts to somewhere meaningful, the surface of the Moon, to start to develop a long term manned base there that is a good immediate and achievable goal for the Space Launch System that would also provide a good goal for America's deep space manned program in terms of resource, strategic, inspiration and scientific benefit including with at least some water found not just on the poles on the Moon but also bound with the minerals in much of the surface and that in my opinion and of some others would be much more inspirational immediate goal for NASA and the Space Launch System than practice docking with a rock from an asteroid in lunar orbit. The surface of the Moon would also have a much more comparable environment to the surface of Mars having about 1/2 the surface gravity. Mars could still be the long term goal.

Rational Thought: 04/30/2016 08:17 CDT

It’s about Bureaucracy. The real lesson learned is that government agencies are not as efficient and effective as private ones. Even if NASA had a clear vision, the fact is that they would take twice as long and cost four times as much as a private organization. As someone who has worked at all three (government, government contractor, and private organization) the productivity, motivation, and creativity of a private organization is far higher. It is true that NASA is subject to political pressure and inconsistent funding, but any one year NASA spends more money than Space X has spent in 10 years developing the Falcon 9 and Dragon. Furthermore organizations like the defense industry, are not truly private… they follow and mirror the overwhelming regulatory requirements and risk aversion of the government and depend on the government for most of their income. I will be the first one to admit that Space X has challenges to meet and may indeed fail, but similar to Tesla, they have totally shook up their respective industries. Space X funded and developed a rocket engine, rocket, landing technology, and capsules at essentially no cost to the taxpayers. Vision can play a part but It’s not really about a vision. It’s about bureaucracy.

Stephen: 04/30/2016 09:11 CDT

@Casey: “I'm glad they're trying” So am I! Especially given the desert of manned Mars exploration attempts elsewhere. It’s the timetable which worries me. It seems as if SpaceX is rushing into this rather than proceeding at a more cautious and methodical pace. @Casey: “Mars is the agreed-upon goal of Congress (from the 2010 NASA Auth act)” Glad to hear it. So what budget has Congress allocated to NASA to achieve that goal? @Casey: “NASA itself declares they are on a ‘Journey to Mars’ which they wouldn't be able to say without implicit White House approval.” Implicit approval sounds like what you get when the White House has a problem making that approval EXplicit. So just what exactly is the White House problem with a manned Mars mission? Is it worried it might have to allocate some actual money towards such a goal? Obama has been in the White House for over seven years. If he can’t come out and be open about supporting manned Mars missions even now then what makes you think he was EVER in favour in the first place? A more likely truth is that Mars mission enthusiasts have been taken for a ride. In exchange for their silence over the cancellation of Constellation they were offered a pig in a poke.

Chris Prophet: 04/30/2016 02:56 CDT

I can confirm SpaceX have a well developed and practical plan for Mars exploration. A truly elegant engineering solution for how to travel to Mars, which also provides a suitable surface habitation. http://www.amazon.com/SpaceX-From-The-Ground-Up-ebook/dp/B01CUUUZZ2 SpaceX even have a workable finance plan. It's a new dawn, new day...

Stephen: 04/30/2016 09:40 CDT

@dougforworldsexplr: “what consideration is there…to develop a descent/ascent module to the surface of the Moon from lunar orbit similar to the lunar module and find a place to fit it at the top of the Space Launch System with the Orion capsule like was done with the lunar module and the command module at the top of the Apollo rocket” The Constellation project was developing such a module called “Altair”. Unfortunately, AFAIK work on it stopped when Constellation was cancelled.

dougforworldsexplr: 05/01/2016 10:01 CDT

Thanks for the info that the name of the lunar module under the Constellation program was Altair Stephen. I did some research and among other things found that it had a boxlike shape with a diameter of about 7.5 metres while the fairing diameter at the top of the Space Launch System I think is 8.4 metres which is a tight squeeze and that the original Apollo lunar module had a diameter of 4.3 metres which of course definitely accomplished its objectives of landing men safely on the surface of the Moon and which would easily fit in the fairing of the Space Launch System. I also found Orion has a diameter of about 5 metres. If there were manned trips to the surface of the Moon using the basic version of the Space Launch System they might have to forego some of the extra propulsion section of Orion but it probably wouldn't be needed to get astronauts to the surface of the Moon just for more distant targets like Mars. Anyway I still agree Mars would be the best ultimate target for the Space Launch System or any other manned rocket in the solar system but that the surface of the Moon would be a much better immediate target for the Space Launch System than a transported rock from an asteroid. I also support the continued progress of Elon Musk's rockets including the Falcon 9 Heavy and the crewed Dragon to get astronauts to the surface of Mars and perhaps the surface of the Moon. I hope both the Space Launch System and Elon Musk's efforts will lead to long term manned bases on the Moon and Mars and not just brief visits. Hopefully the new president and congress of the US will still support both the Space Launch System and Space X but with more emphasis of supporting the goal of using the Space Launch System to have an immediate objective to establish a long term manned base on the Moon then focus on also bringing astronauts to the surface of Mars and to support SpaceX to if that is still Elon Musk's priority to take a faster path to establishing a permanent manned Mars base

Space Case: 05/02/2016 05:58 CDT

The thing to realize with Space X is that the founder is 44 years old and wants to stand on Mars in his lifetime. This is why progress at Space X is moving at light speed. It's get the job done with the most dedicated Engineers and have an "Apollo mentality". Musk should also consider a stop at the Moon as a way to prove out most of the Mars hardware first. You need a Mars Ascent Vehicle anyway and the incremental changes for a LEM are not that extensive. I wonder if Musk wants to stand on the moon. He never mentions it.

GaryChurch: 05/07/2016 01:04 CDT

I have been extremely critical of the whole NewSpace movement from the beginning. Way too much hype and shady goings-on and very little to show for it except some satellites and landing back lower stages. The landing back the lower stages is a clever gimmick but does not make the flagship company inferior lift launch vehicle anything more than a bored billionaires hobby rocket. Compared to the ULA birds and the SLS it IS a hobby rocket. SpaceX has a legion of cyberthugs patrolling the internet shouting down anybody daring to blaspheme their demigod- and this is a huge red flag by itself. Just see what kind of replies this comment gets.

GaryChurch: 05/07/2016 01:16 CDT

"SpaceX has a legion of cyberthugs patrolling the internet-" Oops, should have said, "on their behalf." Don't know if SpaceX is actually paying any of these fiends. I know of two that between them have posted close to 10,000 comments over the last 5 years promoting the company. I am not kidding. This kind of endless infomercial means anyone interested in space that has gone onto the popular space blogs for that last couple years is immersed in a monoculture of Ayn-Rand-in-Space libertarian NASA haters. I personally believe this has set space exploration back at least a decade due to the negative effects on public opinion- and the damage is accumulating.

Rf2020: 05/25/2016 10:11 CDT

Hierarchicality is the way government organizations are created. Layers of sort of slave master bureaucracy are an impediment to creativity. Nasa had its previous limited success in spite of its organizational structure. What can it learn? Hopefully to minimize the crushing influence of its top down dominance hierarchy while supporting SpaceX in areas where NASA has alignment with the SpaceX agenda....

Leave a Comment:

You must be logged in to submit a comment. Log in now.
Facebook Twitter Email RSS AddThis

Blog Search

JOIN THE
PLANETARY SOCIETY

Beyond The Horizon, There's More To Explore!

Become a member of The Planetary Society and together we will create the future of space exploration.

Join Us

Featured Images

Goodbye, Earth
SpaceX interplanetary transport system on launch pad
Rosetta impact
Mawrth Vallis, Mars
More Images

Featured Video

The Planetary Post - Star Trek 50th Anniversary

Watch Now

Space in Images

Pretty pictures and
awe-inspiring science.

See More

Join The Planetary Society

Let’s explore the cosmos together!

Become a Member

Connect With Us

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and more…
Continue the conversation with our online community!