NASA to SpaceX – Man on Mars by 2020?

Three days ago, on the 21st July 2011, the last Space Shuttle landed for the last time, bringing to a close the programme that lifted the first shuttle in 1981. I have always been fascinated by the shuttle, especially by its ability to go and do its business in space and then land on a runway like a giant bird. So that’s a dream gone ablast – watching it lift off one day from Cape Canaveral.

The last mission was STS-135 and it shuttled more than 4,260Kg worth of supplies to the International Space Station. The supplies are vital to sustaining America’s part of the international mission in space. The ISS was first designed as a laboratory in space, developing an understanding of how the human body reacts to long-term exposure away from Earth. This will help to build knowledge on whether colonies of humans staying away from Earth will ever be possible. The space agencies of USA (NASA), Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe participate in mission control from Earth.

The long and short is that NASA will continue to participate in low Earth orbit through a contract of 12 missions with the SpaceX Falcon9 launch vehicle and Dragon spacecraft.

The big question is when will SpaceX be able to operate a manned craft in space? Following the success of an unmanned launch and the succesful return of the capsule to Earth in December 2010, the company was awarded a further contract of $75 million to evolve their technologies such that the Dragon spacecraft can carry astronauts.

“With NASA’s support, SpaceX will be ready to fly its first manned mission in 2014.” says Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO. Until then, American astronouts will have to hitch a ride on Russian Soyuz capsules!

Musk (SpaceX CEO) is also cofounder of PayPal. In an interview to he told Michael Malone that SpaceX will “try” to put humans on Mars by 2020. What does the man who built the future of online payments have to do with spaceflight?! Nothing. He is just terribly smart.

I am confident that someone who can build SpaceX with its three launch vehicles (Falcon 1, Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy) and the Dragon spacecraft in eight years (since 2002), can also put a man on Mars given one and a half times that (2020). NASA’s FAQ page on the Space Shuttle puts the cost of one mission to $450 million. A mission with SpaceX will cost $133 million. On the SpaceX updates webpage Elon Musk makes it clear that: If there are cost overruns, SpaceX will cover the difference. (This concept may be foreign to some traditional government space contractors that seem to believe that cost overruns should be the responsibility of the taxpayer.)  How’s that for trusting the man?