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Interesting details emerge regarding NASA’s involvement with Red Dragon

Rough mission profile of SpaceX's notional Red Dragon mission. Credit: SpaceX

Rough mission profile of SpaceX’s notional Red Dragon mission. Credit: SpaceX

In NASA’s weekly Future In-Space Operations (FISO) teleconference, Phil McAlister — NASA’s Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development — discussed the agency’s involvement with SpaceX on the company’s Red Dragon mission, tentatively scheduled for May 2018.

First, a little history

SpaceX surprised the world when it announced the mission on April 27, 2016, by proposing to launch an uncrewed Dragon v2 capsule — dubbed ‘Red Dragon’ in reference to its destination — to Mars in 2018 and land the capsule on the surface of the planet. Though NASA has been successful in landing craft and rovers on the Red Planet, the heaviest has been Curiosity. However, NASA needs to be able to do more than that.

Weighing in at nearly 2,000 pounds (899 kilograms), the rover represents only a fraction of the mass the agency would need to land on the Martian surface to support and sustain a crewed mission. SpaceX’s Dragon v2 capsule, though, tips the scales at more than seven times that, plus offers the capability to support an additional 2,200 pounds (1 metric ton) of cargo carried in the craft’s interior. How does one get that much mass safely to the surface of Mars?

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, stated Red Dragon would employ supersonic retro-propulsion, rather than inflatable decelerators and/or parachutes in combination with a propulsive landing, in order to achieve this task. Essentially using Red Dragon’s integrated SuperDraco thrusters to slow the craft through the perilous entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase of the flight, the mission proposed by SpaceX would accomplish something NASA had discussed doing, though at least a decade before the agency, and at a fraction of the cost.

When speaking about getting this important data for future agency missions to Mars, and why partnering with SpaceX made sense, McAlister noted: “No other way to get it in the near term and at this kind of cost.”

A whole greater than the sum of its parts

Could SpaceX do it alone? Possibly. But did they need to? As part of the Collaboration for Commercial Space Capabilities (CCSC) Space Act Agreement awarded to the company — along with Orbital ATK, Final Frontier Design, and United Alliance — SpaceX reached out to NASA in the latter half of 2015 to seek an expansion of the CCSC to see what support the agency could provide SpaceX in a then-notional uncrewed technology demonstration mission to Mars.

NASA leadership evaluated the proposal from SpaceX, and determined the agency could provide valuable assistance to SpaceX within the construct of the CCSC agreement. Both SpaceX and NASA felt that the company had a reasonable likelihood of success with the Red Dragon mission should they go solo, but that probability of success could be greatly improved with NASA’s assistance.

Getting to Mars for the low, low price of…

So, how much is NASA paying SpaceX to undertake this mission? Nothing. OK, well, that might not be entirely accurate. While the agency isn’t paying money directly to SpaceX for Red Dragon, it is providing invaluable data collected by the agency from the multitude of missions they’ve already sent to Mars, as well as officially assigning NASA and Civil Service personnel to assist with various aspects of the Red Dragon mission.

While that might not be free, NASA was able to make use of some of the money left over from the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program to fund the personnel and services necessary to assist SpaceX.

Beyond personnel and archived data, NASA is also providing key assistance in six areas outlined in respective Technical Exchange Documents (TEDs). According to the presentation that accompanied this teleconference, these TEDs are (all credited to NASA/Phil McAlister):

  1. Deep space communications, data relay, and tracking
  2. Deep space trajectory design and navigation support
  3. Entry, descent, and landing (EDL) system engineering and analysis
  4. Aerosciences activities
  5. Flight system technical review and advice
  6. Planetary protection consultation and advice

So, what’s in it for NASA?

In a word, data. Lots and lots of data. Every crewed, or crew-supporting, Martian surface mission the agency has devised relies on supersonic retro-propulsion, and SpaceX will provide to NASA most of the flight data acquired throughout the entirety of the EDL phase of the mission. Since Red Dragon will have the largest mass and ballistic coefficient of any spacecraft yet sent to Mars, that data is critical for any missions the agency designs for the Martian surface.

After the craft has progressed through entry and descent, there’s still the matter of the landing phase. A journey of many millions of miles can go awry in the last few feet. As Red Dragon’s rocket plume — from the largest rocket engines to reach the surface of the Red Planet — interacts with the Martian regolith, a great deal of debris will be disturbed and could impinge on the spacecraft’s systems. Data collected during this phase will also be supplied to NASA as part of their participation in the mission.

Share and share alike…right?

One of the great things about NASA’s involvement with Red Dragon is that any science acquired during the mission will eventually make its way into the public domain. This sharing of information allows scientists from around the world to access data they might not otherwise be able to acquire.

However, not all data is created equally. Though SpaceX will be sharing the EDL data with NASA, the agency will not be allowed to share that with anyone else. So, while NASA must competitively bid out any missions under its banner, it appears they may not be able to supply any SpaceX-proprietary data to anyone outside the agency.

The inexorable march of time

Contrary to what one may believe from most science fiction shows, astronauts can’t just hop in their spacecraft at any time to head off to Mars. Due to the orbital alignment of Earth and Mars, a favorable launch window only presents itself every 26 months. Though SpaceX is targeting May 2018 as their launch date, many people consider that to be a very aggressive schedule.

Red Dragon is slated to launch atop the company’s Falcon Heavy vehicle, though that rocket has yet to have its maiden flight. Habitually delayed, it was scheduled to launch in the latter half of 2016. However, with the loss of the Falcon 9 and its AMOS-6 payload on September 1, 2016, still under investigation and the company’s fleet currently grounded, it’s not clear if SpaceX will be able to launch Red Dragon during the 2018 Earth-Mars window.

Should SpaceX miss the May 2018 opportunity, they’ll need to wait until the summer of 2020 to retry. Nevertheless, even if the mission is delayed until then, that would still be years before the agency could undertake something similar.

Red Dragon holds the promise of providing essential data and experience to not only SpaceX, but to NASA as well. This sort of public-private collaboration will reward both parties. This should be an interesting mission.

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