Though it’ll be at least another decade or so until NASA sends a ship to Mars, private space firm SpaceX is gearing up to send one of its Red Dragon ships to the red planet in just two years. So, what’s the price tag to (hopefully) land an unmanned ship on Mars?
A mere $320 million, at least according to NASA representative Jim Reuter, who revealed the price tag at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council, according to Space News. Of that total, NASA will be kicking in $32 million via in-kind services to support the mission in exchange for a share of information from the initiative. SpaceX has not confirmed the exact total, though this seems to be a relatively accurate estimate. Regardless: It’s fairly reasonable, and lower than the billions NASA is spending on its (admittedly more ambitious) Mars plan.
The 2018 mission aims to launch a Red Dragon console from Earth and land it on Mars, as a proof of concept to show it is possible to successfully send heavier payloads to the planet and set them down successfully. That’s even harder than it sounds, considering Mars has a much thinner atmosphere than Earth, meaning there’s not nearly as much resistance to slow down heavier craft.
If that mission goes well, it’ll be a precursor to a manned SpaceX mission to Mars, using a larger version of the Dragon capsule designed for longer trips (we don’t know exactly what that’ll look like just yet). The company wants to replicate the supply missions every two years, ahead of the proposed 2024 manned mission (which is well ahead of NASA’s 2030s timetable).
But it all hinges on this 2018 mission, to show they can safely land a craft without plowing it into the Martian surface. So, fingers crossed.