NASA is working with SpaceX to piggyback some technology and equipment on the company’s early trips to Mars, but the space agency will not be hitching a ride on the first mission.
NASA’s Jim Green, head of the agency's Planetary Science Division, said NASA wants to wait and make sure SpaceX can actually pull off the landing before loading the first Dragon capsule up with expensive technology and equipment. There’s a reason a good bit of the proposed Mars missions end with a tiny crater on the Red Planet’s surface, and Green put it pretty simply: “Landing on Mars is hard.”
Elon Musk is adamant about the company’s plans to send a Dragon capsule to Mars every two years (the ideal launch window is about every 26 months) starting in 2018 to test out the feasibility of the tech, the landing process, and to start stocking up on supplies and gear for future astronauts. Actually landing something that big on another planet will be a feat of engineering, and NASA looks to be making a prudent call by sitting out the first launch. All things considered, no one would be surprised if it took SpaceX a couple of tries to get it right.
Once SpaceX works out the kinks, Green said he “can’t wait” to take advantage of their partnership and get some equipment dropped on Mars. Because first step is equipment, and the next step is astronauts. You just need to, you know, stick the landing before you actually put people up there.