A prototype passenger spaceship designed by SpaceX takes off from a test stand in Florida to demonstrate a multi-purpose propulsion system. Image credit: SpaceX

May 11, 2015 Musk sees SpaceX Dragon test flight as a steppingstone to Mars

Sen—When Space Exploration Technologies’ (SpaceX) Crew Dragon prototype shot itself out over the Atlantic Ocean last week, company founder and chief executive Elon Musk didn’t just see a demonstration of how astronauts could escape from a launch pad fire or other emergency. Part of his mind was 140 million miles away, watching the capsule land on Mars.

Unlike past generations of piloted spaceships, Crew Dragon is designed to tap its own liquid-fuel thrusters to push itself away from a failing rocket, rather than use a traditional solid-fuel tractor motor and tower that is attached to the nose of the capsule and then jettisoned during ascent if the launch is good.

“This will be a step beyond what’s been available in the past from any launch vehicle—U.S. or otherwise,” Musk said in an interview after last week’s pad abort test, which took place at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

In addition to providing an escape route all the way to orbit, Dragon’s abort system doubles as a way for the spacecraft to land—on Earth, Mars and other bodies in the Solar System.

“If (Dragon’s) propellant is not used for an abort, then it is available to use for propulsive landing. Dragon is really designed not just for carrying crew to and from the space station, but also more generally it’s capable of transporting scientific payloads to any body in the Solar System where there is a liquid or solid surface—with or without an atmosphere.

“Particularly, when it’s boosted on a Falcon Heavy, (Dragon) can pretty much go anywhere in the Solar System. It’s a heck of a big rocket,” Musk added.

SpaceX’s 27-engine Falcon rocket, which is slated for a debut test flight as early as this year, is designed to carry more than 117,000 pounds—the equivalent of a fully loaded Boeing 737 passenger aircraft—to low-Earth orbit. The rocket also could send more than 29,000 pounds to Mars.

“We think we could actually put quite a substantial payload to Mars” Musk said. “Probably something on the order of two- to four tons of useful payload to the surface of Mars,” launching on a Falcon Heavy.

So far, the heftiest payload NASA has landed on Mars is the one-ton Curiosity Mars Science Laboratory rover, which touched down in August 2012 via parachutes and an innovative, rocket-powered sky crane. NASA is working on technologies that use inflatable, adjustable shields and supersonic parachutes to deliver two- to three tons on Mars.

With its heat shield, parachutes and propulsive landing capability, Dragon could touch down on a planet with higher re-entry heating, such as Mars, as well as airless bodies, like the Moon.

“For places that don’t have an atmosphere, you would obviously remove the parachute and the heat shield and replace that with additional propellant. So you’d have quite a bit of propellant for landing,” Musk said.

“Dragon should be quite versatile and useful in a lot of ways, for both the science community and for transporting astronauts,” he said.

Along with developing the passenger version of the Dragon capsule (cargo Dragons have been flying to the International Space Station for NASA since 2012), SpaceX is working on recovering the first stage of the jettisoned Falcon 9 booster rockets so they can be refurbished and reflown.

“Our fundamental belief is that if it still costs you a tremendous amount of money to get meaningful payload into LEO (low-Earth orbit), you’re never going to get large numbers of people onto Mars,” SpaceX account manager Joshua Brost said at the Humans To Mars summit last week in Washington, DC.

The next attempt to land a Falcon 9 rocket on a platform in the ocean is expected in June.

Meanwhile, SpaceX is preparing for two more unmanned test flights of Crew Dragon capsules before astronauts board the capsule for a trial run in 2017. One of the automated tests will be another demonstration of the capsule’s launch abort system, this time at supersonic speed and high altitude. The second flight will demonstrate the capsule’s ability to rendezvous and dock with the space station.

Originally, SpaceX planned to do the launch abort test later this year before the station demonstration, targeted for 2016, but Musk said the order of the flights may change depending on when the capsules are ready to fly.

Either way, the company aims to begin flying crews to the station before the end of 2017.

“We’re really looking forward to it,” Musk said. “It’s going to be super exciting.”

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The Crew Dragon prototype on the launch pad before its unmanned pad abort test. Image credit: SpaceX

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The Crew Dragon prototype after separation makes its way to a safe landing under parachute during the pad abort test on May 6, 2015. Image credit: SpaceX