back to article Multimillionaire's private space ship 'can land on Mars'

Famous upstart startup rocket company SpaceX, bankrolled and helmed by renowned internet nerdwealth hecamillionaire Elon Musk, has once again sent its goalposts racing ahead of its rapidly-advancing corporate reality. The Dragon capsule with 'Draco' rockets in action. Credit: SpaceX A proper Dragon can breathe fire as well …


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  1. Code Monkey

    Good luck fellas

    I'm hugely envious of the generation that saw man land on the moon and would love to live to see the day our species sets foot on another planet.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Bankrolled by the US taxpayer.

    These companies may have had money from the private sector, but NASA has been financing and providing technical help to them and they can raise private capital on the basis of huge government contracts. They are not really any different from existing US space launcher companies.

    1. Jared Hunt

      NASA have been putting in seed money true...

      But Musk actually seems to be bucking the trend by actually using the money to actually build actual rockets that actually work as opposed to just making really really expensive PDF documents.


    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      If you knew more about the function and history of NASA or of how most large aerospace companies operate in this area you'd realise how ignorant your comments are.

  3. Uncle Slacky Silver badge

    Why bother to come back?

    I'm sure plenty of people would volunteer for a one-way trip, even if it meant they wouldn't actually survive there very long..

    1. Lewis Mettler

      got a point

      No doubt volunteers could be available for a one-way trip.

      Being the first man on mars has to come with some bonus points.

      And strangely enough there would be little value in people returning from mars. It is unlikely they would ever go again on another trip. And all of the value of having been there can be realized without a return. If you lose communication, you aint coming back anyway.

      I can think of a thousand worse ways to die. And a thousand worse places too.

      The old saying "a wonderful day to die" (somehow attributed to the american indian) could be rewritten as "a wonderful place to die".

      We are all mortal. So either you go away quietly or you make some noise.

      1. Robert E A Harvey
        Thumb Up

        @ Mettler

        I'd go.

        I'm 60. At some point quite soon I will be taking a one way journey, might as well be that one.

        If they built a colony ship, and wanted someone to keep the lights on for the first few years I'd sign up for that too.

    2. Elmer Phud

      Douglas Adams

      Oh, I'm sure we can fill it with estate agents, telphone sanitisers etc. etc.

    3. sT0rNG b4R3 duRiD

      You're right of course...

      And they wouldn't survive very long for sure!

      The ping must be terrible...

      (3 plus minutes by my reckoning).

      Seriously jokes aside, I can understand why some would but I wouldn't go. For now, there are lots of other earthly priorities that I have that I'd rather go out fulfilled and anonymous.

  4. lglethal Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Gotta give that man props!

    Say what you want about Elon, but he's using his hecamillions to try to advance technology to the point where Humans can start to travel in the stars! And if that doesnt deserve plaudits then i dont know what does!

    If i ever meet the man, the pints on me!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Don't forget what he does in his spare time

      He must be having a blast developing the future.

      1. Rick Brasche

        that's always puzzled me...

        is that Mr. Musk can run a company that makes lifting men and materiel to orbit -something so massively complex only a few national governments have been able to successfully pull it off-and do it more efficiently, cost effectively and with more agility than ever before. But when it comes to electric motorcars for public streets, a fundamental technology thats been around before the 1900's, the trend is the exact opposite- more expensive, less accessable, less adaptable than many other efforts that others have attempted to bring to market.

        How long did it take Tesla to release the promised transmission to the Roadster after sale? How many times did that company kiss arse of state and national governments for subsidies and tax breaks for promises of factories that it turned around and abandoned days later? And still living off of the "early adopter" bongwater...nevermind that not a *single* major innovative technology is Tesla developed but purchased off the shelf from companies and suppliers that were selling their wares to the general public years before, so there's no true "early adopter" at this stage.

        I'm guessing, the difference is in the management team. One was the usual bunch of corporate MBA's that buzz around "innovations" that can be overpriced and sold to the gullible, while the other was up against hard realities and real-world physics. Can't bulls**t your way past aerodynamics, thrust to weight ratios, stress loads or reentry plasma. But you can always find a way to sell an overrated golf cart to Californians and Floridans (ZAP, GEM,Club Car, EZ-Go, and many others). Mr. Musk had to clean house awhile ago, sent a bunch of 'execs" off to Mission Motors making (but not selling) electric motorcycles. I wonder if it's possible to turn things around after all the bad blood, mistakes and broken promises.

        1. Affian

          Rockets vs Electric

          I think one of the problems with Electric vehicles is that battery tech isn't keeping up with what's being asked for it, finding stuff to explode in a rocket is pretty easy. Of course that's just looking at fuel sources.

          I think there needs to be a paradigm shift in the way people design and think of electric vehicles the same way SpaceX is doing for space flight.

        2. Ainteenbooty

          Maybe he likes one and not the other?

          He probably enjoys the rocket business more, at least presently. He may have been excited about electric cars when he first got into them, but is probably disenchanted by now considering the realities of the available technology.

          Any job for which the proper tools exist would be easier than one without, therefore: building a space ship is easier than building a decent electric car.

          I suspect that if battery technology does not suddenly improve we might be better off focusing on generating the needed power on demand, rather than trying to store it in massive quantity. Perhaps via some beefed up implementation of a hydrogen fuel cell, or better yet a micro IFC reactor!

          Back to my dull reality I go.

          1. Morely the IT Guy

            The biggest problem with electric vehicles

            The biggest problem with electric vehicles is government red tape. You have OSHA, the EPA, the DOT, and FSG only knows what else at the Federal level, and then yet another layer of all that at the State level, and even some more at County and City government levels. Yes, battery technology is still a bit of an issue, but in 1907 Detroit Electric was making electric cars with an advertised range of 80 miles on a charge, and in actual road tests exceeded 200 miles. One would think that humanity could probably achieve at least parity with technology that's a century old, if we throw enough money at the problem.

            Meanwhile, SpaceX is managing to improve on existing, current technology by using the age-old Engineering paradigm: "Steal from the best." You take what's been done before, see what you can do to improve it economically, and do it. There's nothing wrong with that, it's the smart way to advance technology. Fortunately, the space transportation industry isn't overrun with patent trolls, like the software field is. Not yet, anyway.

            1. Jacob Lipman

              Comparing a horseless carriage to a modern car...

              The comparison is very silly and not at all realistic. Modern technology can do much more than achieve parity with century-old technology. The Detroit Electric cars you reference had a top speed of about 20MPH (32Km/H), and weighed a fraction of what a modern vehicle must. Modern safety standards require a much sturdier, and consequently heavier vehicle. Were a vehicle similar in design built, using modern motors and batteries, it would have a much greater top speed and range, and would be extremely unsafe by modern standards.

              People living in the developed world have come to expect certain amenities in their vehicles, all of which add weight, including but not limited to:

              -Heating and air conditioning (these systems add great weight to an electric vehicle, as well as power consumption)

              -Sound systems, cruise control, electronic locks, internal lighting, electronic defroster, windshield wipers, headlights, tail lights, turn signals and such, other assorted electronics and the many pounds of copper wiring required to run them

              -Comfortable, secure seating and seat belts (as opposed to thinly padded bench seating)

              -Roll cages and crumple zones (generally made of dense metallic substances)

              -A large trunk (/boot) or other storage space

              -Instrument and control panels (speedometer, odometer, tachometer, etc., and controls for all the other devices, the housing for all of these devices)

              -Coverings for every structural surface - carpeted floors, upholstered ceiling, doors, etc.

              You might argue that many of these things are unnecessary, and that modern vehicles without things like cruise control and air conditioning are commonly marketed. This is true - however, it is unlikely that you will find many individuals with the ready cash to become early adopters of a new technology who are willing to spend that ready cash on a vehicle without these amenities. A vehicle that can be built will not be built if it cannot be feasibly marketed. If early adopters sufficiently fund the development of electric car technology, it is believable that one day inexpensive economy-class electric cars, a la Geo Metro, might become available. Until then, barring the emergence of revolutionary battery technology, electric cars with limited range and long charge times will be the name of the game.

    2. Ian Yates
      Thumb Up

      Not only that

      He's actually making space flight cost-effective, which I think deserves massive props.

      If he's making a profit at the prices he's quoting, it just shows what healthy competition can do to an industry.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    That's what you need to propel the human race forward, someone whose crazy enough to punch the world in the face until his dream works and crazy people that are willing to give him the money on the off chance it works.

    A bit like how the Europeans went off and founded colonies around the world.

    Even if he fails, at least he tried.

    1. Bobby Omelette


      ... and Sid Meier gets to dust off Colonization ready for a twenty-first century update.

      1. John 62

        Re: Yep.

        Sid Meier (or rather Brian Reynolds) already made Alpha Centauri. Great game, but too addictive for me to allow myself to play it.

    2. Anonymous Coward

      See what?

      While I, like everyone else I imagine, am impressed by the crazy dreams, innovation and hard work of Elon Musk and co., what achievement is "Europeans went off and founded colonies around the world" and therefore why the comparison? You make it sound like there were not people already there living their lives perfectly successfully before being invaded or European colonies means anything ... Or are Europeans so special that only where they tread is where mankind has progressed?

      In case this is an argument of one-upmanship, China was the world's superpower in every single respect, including science, for thousands of years, long before Europeans even gained scientific awareness. It's also quite likely that the natural state of affairs will soon be restored: i.e. China will again be the world's only superpower. Before that, for eons that dwarf even China's growth, everyone came from Africa. In short, Europeans are a just blip in mankind's interesting journey so far.

      Find some other viable comparison, e.g. the invention of ocean-faring ships and sea lanes. At least this *can*, in known history, be fairly attributed to Europeans.

      1. Michael Hoffmann Silver badge
        Thumb Down


        I agreed with you up until the "natural state of affairs". A Chinese jingoist might see it that way (in the same way a Euro-jingoist would say that 'twas them wot brought civilization to the heathen savages) but, seriously...

        Historically speaking, the "natural state of affairs" is caves and savannahs or, at best, in terms of recorded history, mud hovels.

      2. Nuffnuff

        Ocean-faring ships

        "Find some other viable comparison, e.g. the invention of ocean-faring ships and sea lanes. At least this *can*, in known history, be fairly attributed to Europeans."

        Polynesians had intercontinental trade routes at least a millennium before the Europeans started their colonisation era.

        1. CD001

          Not to mention

          Not to mention the fact that many ocean-going innovations (like the rudder) came from outside Europe; China, India and the Middle-East.

          Steam engines, telephony, monorails - it's only really been since the Industrial era that Europeans have been inventing stuff.

  6. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Where is Ayn Rand?

    Next up: SpaceX destroyed by Federal Read Tape and the tax collector.

  7. John Ruddy
    Thumb Up

    Why bother coming back?

    If he's talking about colonisation, then why both with the return phase? Just set the capsule down, astronauts/colonists get out into habitat building, and use capsule components as raw materials?

  8. Aaron Em

    I don't doubt a Dragon could set down on Mars

    Too bad about it having no way to get there.

    1. James Hughes 1

      Falcon 9 Heavy

      I think would just about be capable. Might need a extra booster to get the capsule on the way, but could easily lift that along with the capsule I would think. Might take a while to get there though.

    2. Asgard

      @Aaron Em

      Aaron Em: "Too bad about it having no way to get there."

      Give them a chance, they are only 8 years old ... They have done amazingly well just getting this far and this fast. Plus any trip to Mars would require the construction of some kind of modular space ship in orbit, in the same way the ISS was built. (The ISS by the way is currently around 418 metric tonnes).

      The Falcon Heavy has a Payload to Low Earth Orbit capacity of 53 metric tonnes. Thats enough lift capacity to start thinking about practical designs that would allow (in a few years) the start of construction of a ship in orbit to get to Mars.

      Plus a Mars ship would need to be huge, as its got to have capacity for living in it for a few years.

      Even the construction of such a big ship in orbit would be a monumental achievement, before they even try to get to Mars.

      1. Ainteenbooty


        Big is easy if you go inflatable.

        I think a good first step in the right direction would be to send an inflatable module prototype up to the ISS for some real world testing. Get all the kinks worked out.

        1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
          Thumb Up


          "I think a good first step in the right direction would be to send an inflatable module prototype up to the ISS for some real world testing. Get all the kinks worked out."

          Well Bigelow licensed (and tweaked) the technology for inflatables from NASA and IIRC they already have some prototypes in orbit. They seem to be making steady (but quiet) progress but continue to be on the look out for cost effective launch services for their guests. I doubt the current *public* figure fo $20m for a paying passenger to the ISS on a Russian Soyuz is *anywhere* near reasonable as far as they are concerned.

          The "problem" for NASA management is that an inflatable sort of *eliminates* a large reason for *having* shuttle flights

          You're quite right that for example a Falcon (or Delta or Atlas) shroud could pack a *lot* of living space inside, requiring pressurization and installation of various rack mounted hardware to make them habitable.

  9. AdamT

    Launch abort system?

    Nice to see that NASA has decided this is a good idea after years of launching one of the most complex experimental flying machines in the world _without_ that facility. Wouldn't have helped Columbia but could have saved the Challenger crew.

    1. John Robson Silver badge

      Only if...

      The abort system ignored the obvious method (the shuttle itself).

      IIRC the latest theory is that the crew component of the shuttle went off on a graceful arc before a fatal collision with the sea.

      "According to the Kerwin Report:

      The findings are inconclusive. The impact of the crew compartment with the ocean surface was so violent that evidence of damage occurring in the seconds which followed the disintegration was masked. Our final conclusions are:

      the cause of death of the Challenger astronauts cannot be positively determined;

      the forces to which the crew were exposed during Orbiter breakup were probably not sufficient to cause death or serious injury; and

      the crew possibly, but not certainly, lost consciousness in the seconds following Orbiter breakup due to in-flight loss of crew module pressure.[13]

      Some experts, including one of NASA's lead investigators, Robert Overmyer, believed most if not all of the crew were alive and possibly conscious during the entire descent until impact with the ocean.[17]"


    2. Stoneshop

      "could have saved the Challenger crew."

      Provided that the exhaust from the leaking seal heating the external fuel tank, and/or the results thereof, was detected in time. In which case they might have had a chance (probably very small, but at least better than none) separating from the tank + boosters (provided that is possible at that stage), performing some aerobatics to get it right side up and aiming the world's most expensive glider anywhere that appears to offer a non-fatal crash landing.

      With a Saturn/Apollo-like launcher, the big boom, if happening, will be behind you. The Challenger had the main tank blowing up right beside it. Way less time for the blast to reach from where it started to the bits you want to not get blasted. Apart from that, the shuttle would have needed a separable crew compartment, as you need to accelerate whatever you want saved away from the stuff blowing up. Rapidly. Very. And as acceleration is force divided by mass, more mass means less acceleration for a given force.

    3. Robert Hill

      It was studied...

      Remember that the Shuttle has a monolithic body, not a single small capsule. To give it a separating escape bod was studied, but it was deemed that this would increase the weight of the crew area substantially, thus limiting payload capability to where it wasn't cost effective, and several of the larger missions (such as lifting components of the ISS) would not have been possible. There was, given the materials and technology of the times, no alternative but the use the entire Shuttle as an escape vehicle, with all of the limitations and risks that implied.

  10. Paul 25

    Cheap rockets to mars...

    If Musk can cheaply (relatively speaking) send capsules to mars and land them with a high level of accuracy it opens up the possibility of sending lots of supplies in advance of any manned landing.

    If Musk can really get the cost down (and he seems to be managing it) any future Mars explorers would be far better equipped than the moon landers could have ever dreamed of being. You could send up enough stuff to keep them supplied for months. In fact you could keep supplying them on a regular basis. You could send the supplies using long but efficient routes well in advance of the meat-bags, who would follow on a more direct route using something like a VASIMR based craft.

    You wouldn't want to send the entire journey to Mars in a Dragon capsule, and I doubt that's what Musk is planning. But it would be ideal for supplies and possibly as a lander once you get there,

  11. Tom 13

    You can't get there if you don't dream about it first.

    First comes the dream, then comes the engineering work, and after many revisions and probably a few false starts, you get to the final product. Kudos to SpaceX for dreaming the dream and setting about the engineering work.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    'Hecamillionaire's private space ship 'can land on Mars'

    There corrected it for you..

    Sheep in a vacuum icon as the title now complies with El'Reg standards.

  13. Smallbrainfield

    Elon Musk

    is Hugo Drax and must be stopped at all costs, lest his deadly orchid poison be released into the atmosphere.

    1. Sir Runcible Spoon


      Why stop him?


    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      "is Hugo Drax and must be stopped at all costs, lest his deadly orchid poison be released into the atmosphere."

      Actually he's more like the Drax in the book.

      However since he's shown no signs of growing extravagant facial hair or wanting to build a Hydrogen/Florine fueled ICBM I think he's fairly harmless.

      Although I doubt that will stop some of the more paranoid bits of the US govt keeping an eye on him on general principles.

  14. Mike Flugennock

    Land... on Mars? M'ehhh, a bit of a stretch

    After all, there's the question of landing gear, an ascent stage, a beefed-up heatshield for Mars atmospheric entry PLUS Earth re-entry at escape velocity (approx 25k mph), not to mention the issue of a five or six-man crew spending two or three months of out/inbound "coast phase" packed into that can (they'd need a separate mission/hab module attached if for no other reason than to keep the crew from going insane). As a crew ferry a la the Apollo C/SM, perhaps, but as a lander? M'eehhhh...

    Musk has gotten a lot accomplished, but he really needs to pull his eyeballs in and concentrate on getting a manned variant of Dragon working and establish a consistent service record for it before he starts thinking about sending it to Mars.

    1. Stoneshop

      You don't need to drag Mars AND earth atmospheric re-entry shields all the way

      Stop at the ISS on the way back, and either bolt on a new shield that's been delivered there by freight shuttle, or change craft and do the last leg by some earth-to-orbit vehicle.

      It might even be possible for some robot craft to 'dock' a new shield onto the returning Mars craft at some point during the return trip.

      1. Mike Flugennock
        Thumb Up

        Dock at ISS instead of coming straight in...?

        Yeah, that's right; I don't know how I could've forgotten that.

        Brake into LEO, dock at ISS, spend a few days debriefing, transferring samples/data and getting cleaned up, climb aboard a fresh Dragon docked at ISS, make a normal orbital re-entry. Yeah. That'd work, assuming ISS is still operational when the Mars mission is flown.

      2. Stoneshop

        So, whoever downvoted that

        apparently thinks my idea is bonkers.

        Well, if you're going to Mars and back you'd want, as noted, something bigger than the Dragon capsule to live in for the duration of the trip. Whatever you need to get down onto the Mars surface and back up again you'd have to have with you. But there's no need to drag the stuff for getting back down on Earth with you all the way; just have it meet up with you somewhere during the return trip. And you don't want the Interplanetary Cruiseliner plunging back down through the earth atmosphere, better to keep it in LEO and refit it for the next trip. For getting the astronauts and the samples down even a couple of those Space Beetles otherwise known as Soyuz would do just fine, and I'm sure gear capable of doing that job will be available by the time people are returning from Mars

    2. Tom 13

      If you are serious about interplanetary travel,

      there will be no coast phase. You'll do some sort of thrust the entire journey - acceleration for the first half, braking for the second. Landing gear, ascent stages, and heat shielding are actually relatively minor problems compared to the big one: radiation protection. Mars lacks the atmosphere and magnetic protections of Earth, so you need shielding. That gets expensive in terms of fuel consumption. But like I said above, you can't get there if you don't do the dreaming part along with the feet on the ground technical work. He seems to be doing both, which makes him part of a very rare breed.

      1. Bassey

        Re: Tom13

        "relatively minor problems compared to the big one: radiation protection. Mars lacks the atmosphere and magnetic protections of Earth, so you need shielding."

        Not necessarily. All the photos we have so far suggest there are plenty of caves on Mars. They surficed for a good while on earth. No reason the Mars Pioneers shouldn't take advantage of all the natural resources they can rather than trying to use expensive (and bulky) technology to sort all their problems.

        Persuading the tabloid-reading masses it is fine to send up Nuclear-reactors necessary for power and oxygen generation is probably the biggest challenge. Everything else required for a one-way trip to Mars is actually straight-forward (by space standards).

      2. Mike Flugennock

        No coast phase?

        Yeah, that'd be a possibility, provided the VASIMIR engines are perfected by then. Dock with a VASIMIR boost stage, thrust to Mars, undock, land, re-dock when your surface ops are done, thrust all the way back.

      3. Nick Ryan Silver badge


        It's not the radiation when you're at Mars that's the problem... it's the radiation on the way to Mars that is.

        Mars itself will provide some protection from radiation - not a lot, but a hell of a lot more than a stock space vehicle will. As already noted, living in caves is an easy first step, with rock built structures the next.

    3. James Hughes 1

      @Mike Fluggwhosit

      SpaceX already have plans for the required landing gear etc, since they want to land it on Earth.

      And absolutely nobody except commentards have mentioned getting back again, just that it *could land* on another planet. The heatshield on the dragon is already capable of mars atmospheric reentry.

      I surely think Musk has his eyeballs firmly on the ball. No retraction required. He IS concentrating on getting Dragon working in the locality. You seem to have read much too much in to the two words 'any planet'

  15. Pete 2 Silver badge

    10/10 for optimism

    > successfully flown to orbit and back once in a test flight ... this puts SpaceX on its own at roughly the same level of space punch as the 19 allied nations of the ESA.

    Minus several million for an accurate comparison.

    Still, I suppose he did say "roughly". Which gives me hope that the Perl script I wrote this morning will one day attain sentience.

    1. xenny

      @ Pete 2

      SpaceX has launched a capsule which has orbited and then successfully re-entered.

      ESA hasn't achieved that yet.

      While SpaceX may not have the range of activities that ESA pursues, I'd say they're rather ahead in the achievements needed to actually send a man into space and then return him to Earth.

      1. Pete 2 Silver badge

        RE-entered? No ... but try this for size

        OK so ESA hasn't sent something up and had it come back down. But that's such a narrow definition of success that it's pretty close to meaningless.

        What ESA *has* achieved is to land a probe on Titan, buzzed a few asteroids and bothered the occasional comet which I personally think is a dam' site more impressive, and not just for the distance, Maybe when SpaceX does get a soft landing on (say) The Moon, then they'll have something to start measuring up to the BIG boys with.

        1. Mike Flugennock

          what SpaceX HAS achieved...

 to put a Dragon craft into orbit and bring it back -- and as Heinlein(?) said, "once you're in Earth orbit, you're halfway to anywhere". It also looks like they're well on the way to perfecting their manned version, from what I'm hearing/reading -- though I'm sure the first "live" payload will be a test animal, likely a dog. Any bets that some wiseass will name it "Gromit"?

          1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

            @Mike Flugennock

            "though I'm sure the first "live" payload will be a test animal, likely a dog. Any bets that some wiseass will name it "Gromit"?"

            Test animals are a part of the contents of the ISS, which (all being well) Spacex will have been supplying under COTS for some time before they fit a Dragon with the escape system. The standard Dragon has life support as standard.

            IIRC they are mostly rats and mice.

            "Any bets that some wiseass will name it "Gromit"?

            I'd guess Mickey and Minnie.

      2. John Smith 19 Gold badge


        "SpaceX has launched a capsule which has orbited and then successfully re-entered."

        A *very* careful use of language.

        while ESA has not carried out a re-entry from *orbit* it has recovered the ARD capsule from the 2nd Ariane qualification flight in 1998. Intact and unharmed (and partly covered with *reusable* rather than simply ablative tiles).

        I'd guess that while it was dropped off at *below* orbital speed it reached an altitude of 830Km. I'd guess if it didn't re-enter from there *at* orbital speed it was pretty close.

        NASA used a similar technique in their FIRE test launches to simulate re-entry from *lunar* entry speeds (roughly root2 bigger) with the addition IIRC of a 3rd stage on an atlas with the nozzle pointed *up* to give it a bit more speed.

        1. Mike Flugennock

          "lunar" re-entry speed tests?

          As I recall, one of the big rationales for the proposed Lunar Gemini flights that were to follow the Earth orbital Gemini flights was to test heat shielding at re-entry speeds approximating that of a returning lunar mission. Needless to say, the Apollo people felt threatened at the time, and the whole Lunar Gemini proposal was smothered in the crib; all that remained of that proposed series was the Gemini 11 mission, which set an orbital altitude record (at the time) of 1374.1km using the docked Agena boost stage.

          1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

            @Mike Flugennock

            In his talk before the NPC on the Spacex website Musk states the standard ablative coating on Dragon was sized to handle a re-entry from Mars.

            TPS testing for lunar re-entry was IIRC the subject of the FIRE series of tests around 1967-1968 using an Atlas with (in the later ones) a 3rd stage attached pointing down to get extra entry velocity.

            I'm not quite sure what your point about the lunar Gemini missions is.

            I'd love to know if that altitude record has ever been beaten. I don't mean by the Apollos, I mean in stable Earth orbit.

  16. Mike Hanna
    Thumb Up

    I love...

    ...that it looks like a Star Wars escape pod

    1. LaeMing

      But we can't land humans in it then!

      If there are life signs, the Empire will shoot it down.

  17. james 68


    doesnt el-reg have a vehicle capable of landing on other planets?

    and its made from paper to boot (you lot missed out on publicity/advertising there, foolish)

    all it needs is a means of getting there

    stick a paper plane on a rocket - fire it at mars and voila, hell you can do it with a bouncy ball

    just cause something 'can' land somewhere doesnt necessarily mean its a good idea or serves any real purpose beyond publicity

  18. xenny
    Thumb Up

    Retirement home

    Elon has announced he intends to retire on Mars. Makes sense to get on and build the systems needed to do it.

    1. IglooDude


      If Mr. Musk is trying to be a real-life version of Del Harriman (The Man Who Sold the Moon, Robert Heinlein), he's so far doing a brilliant job of it. I only hope that he manages a longer stay at his ultimate goal (whilst still breathing) than his fictional counterpart did.

      1. '); DROP TABLE comments; --
        Thumb Up


        I just hope that Musk's eventual Martian grave is bit more than R.L. Stevenson's poignant poem scrawled on a shipping container tag and pinned to the ground with a knife...

  19. Gotno iShit Wantno iShit


    "this puts SpaceX on its own at roughly the same level of space punch as the 19 allied nations of the ESA"

    It is true that ESA have never to my knowledge carried a large cheese into space and returned it safetly to earth. It is also true that ESA have achieved quite a number of things that SpaceX have not yet attempted. To say they are on equal footing in the present tense is, how can I put this, utter bollocks.

    But then everything that comes out of America is superriffically perfect to Lewis.

  20. Sven
    Thumb Up

    Boldy go

    Its nice to see that there are people out there that not only talk big but build big. And why can't they make money off sending people off to the Moon or Mars.

  21. Anonymous Coward

    Elon Musk = Cave Johnson?

    Hey, there's Science to do!

  22. Craig Vaughton


    Never mind volunteers to go to Mars on a one way trip, I can think of a few I'd like to "volunteer"...

    Grenade: that's the cheaper option.

  23. Joe Cooper

    Not Mars

    He didn't exactly say you can land it on Mars. It's just able to do the final landing. The Martian atmosphere is dramatically thinner so your terminal velocity is much higher; if you use a lander designed for Earth, you'll hit the ground far too fast. Dragon has propulsive landing but the delta-v might need to be boosted a large bit to do a Mars landing.

    You can try this in a simulator like Orbiter Sim. Landing the Shuttle on Mars, for example, doesn't work because the speed you need to get any lift is radically high; you can't slow down enough to land and retain any lift or control at the same time.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Joe Cooper

      "The Martian atmosphere is dramatically thinner so your terminal velocity is much higher;"

      Have you have factored in Martian gravity is roughly 1/3 that of Earth?

      1. Joe Cooper

        no title

        @John Smith

        Yessir, but the atmosphere is about 1/100th the density.

        The difference is large enough to require substantially different aerodynamics. A vehicle designed for flight on Earth, for example, can't get sufficient lift, and the drag (relevant here) is substantially lower than 1/3.


        You might be right.

        1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
          Thumb Up

          @Joe Cooper

          "Yessir, but the atmosphere is about 1/100th the density."

          I'd forgotten just *how* thin the Mars atmosphere is.

          Re-read the article though and you realize it makes *no* mention of Dragons ability to make the entry, just that *if* it could the system they have got funding for will allow precision landing (yards, rather than fractions of a nautical mile).

        2. hayseed

          @Joe Cooper

          Capsules use most of their lift in very thin air - it's just this will be closest to the ground. I'm a guy with physics degrees, not aeronautics - but I live next to one of the most famous facilities on earth, so naturally I have an interest...

    2. hayseed

      Re: Not Mars

      The capsule might already have the required margin. Remember, these rockets are also used to get the hell out of Dodge in any accident, so they will exceed requirements for simply a soft landing by a very large margin.

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge


        "Remember, these rockets are also used to get the hell out of Dodge in any accident, so they will exceed requirements for simply a soft landing by a very large margin."

        Wrong tense. At present the Draco thrusters on the Dragon capsule are for attitude control and *small* velocity changes on orbit only. Dragon is not crew rated so as of right now a pad accident would mean loss of capsule.

        The $75m NASA payment is to *upgrade* them to act as an escape system. Musk has stated this should be complete 36 months after cash award with 6 months of that being a float for unexpected stuff turning up.

        1. Stoneshop


          Getting the capsule away from an explosion requires way less propulsion than getting a craft down on the ground. So having it rated for accident escape won't mean it's capable of a soft surface landing on Mars, by a large margin.

          1. hayseed


            Mars has a thin atmosphere, unlike the moon. Look at all of the back-of-the-envelope calculations on the web for freefall speeds on Mars. Parachutes will still be apparently quite effective. Taking out the parachutes and putting in extra rockets might be good if the drag can bring it down to subsonic speeds in the atmosphere.

  24. Ashley Stevens

    White cat?

    But does he have a white cat, that's what we all really want to know?

  25. Big Al

    No return

    "Presumably he's thinking of Dragons setting down on Mars, being refuelled..."

    Or he's been talking to Buzz Aldrin (pictured at a SpaceX bash on their website) and believes that there should be no return option for the first colonists - Aldrin's stated view is that “They need to go there more with the psychology of knowing that you are a pioneering settler and you don’t look forward to go back home again after a couple a years”"

  26. John Smith 19 Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    Exciting times, an amazing bargain but not unexpected.

    I'd thought he was waiting for the COTS2 and possibly 3 flights (several 100 million $) before they could start this. $70m is a snip for this task. Testing it with a real Dragon capsule launch will cost a bit more of course. You'd pretty much have to dedicate a full f9 launch to do it.

    After all how does a rocket with no nose fly? Badly.

    BTW anyone who saw his 1 hr talk before the National Press Club on the Spacex website might have known quite a bit of this. Not the landing *on* another planet but that the Dragon heat shield is spec'd for re-entry velocities up *to* a return from Mars to Earth. This may be easier than it sounds.

    Once you've decided to have the TPS handle a re-entry from *lunar* orbit Mars may not be *that* much heavier. Note also the PicaX (Spacex's tweaked version of the NASA Ames Pica ablator) is 50-60% lighter than the Apollo Avcoat stuff (and they probably followed Max Fagets advice to only put it on where it's *necessary* not all over as the *very* conservative Apollo CM builders did)

    The thrusters are *way* trickier. Here's some perspective.

    Opening up Sutton 4th Ed (pg 18) shows the Apollo CM had 12 NTO/MMH each putting out 93lb, obviously in opposing pairs to stop any motion you'd started. Good for 230 secs (not sure if that's total across *all* thrusters or each).

    OTOH the escape system main solid put out 147000Lb (for 8 sec) with steering by a 2 nozzle pitch control rocket (1 nozzle oversize, 1 undersize to steer the CM away from the exploding Saturn with *no* moving parts) putting out 2400Lb for 0.5sec. A 3rd one ejects the tower once its not needed. That puts out 31500Lb for 1 sec.

    If *half* the 12 attitude thrusters could run for 230sec and point in a useful direction their total impulse (thrust x burn time) would *still* be < 1/9 the required impulse put out by the 2 solids which fire in an emergency.

    Obviously Dragon is not Apollo but if the scale of response times, and hence forces needed are *roughly* similar you're looking at a system with normal mode at 1 and emergency mode at 10 units of thrust.

    I'm aware of 3 precedents for this.

    The Stentor engine driving the Blue Steel stand off missile had 2 separate chambers with a 4:1 thrust ratio, presumably driven by the same turbo machinery pumping Kerosene/Hydrogen Peroxide.

    The old faithful RL10 (pumped LO2/LH2) has been throttled *down* to c 2% of main thrust

    Perhaps more relevant the Lance missile achieved 10:1 thrust levels by using an ablatively cooled chamber-within-chamber design (both running at launch) using UDMH/IRFA forced out of their tanks by pistons driven by a solid propellant gas generator with sustainer throttling and steering by pulsed UDMH injection. chamber pressure was 950psi.

    Bottom line. *Currently* wide throttling range *is* possible for pumped design or ones with high chamber pressures. Most thrusters are pressure fed with propellants and gas in seperate tanks (EG 5000psi for He, 200psi for the propellants leading to a 150psi chamber)

    In the thruster world the state of the art *seems* to be the Boeing Canoga Park (AKA Rocketdyne) "Multi Use Thruster" throttling from 500-1100 Lb thrust using (allegedly) a 500psi chamber pressure to deliver a very small thruster with a claimed T/W of 290 but using the nearly unknown "Mixed-oxides-of-Nitrogen"

    It's also likely to be a bit over the cutoff point that John whitehead at LLNL worked out for using reciprocating positive displacement pumps (although they do start and stop really well and would be fine at the attitude control level of thrust). Likewise Steve Harrington's team who confine the high pressure to their pump and a specific high pressure tank.

    I hope Spacex don't chicken out and go with a solid solution, which they'd probably have to buy in. If they stick to a top mounted dual (triple if you include terminal maneuvers) use design this will move the state of the art *significantly* forward.

    Exciting times.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Thumb Up


      It wasn't *that* bad a joke.

      To make my PoV clear.

      This is great news.

      It will be *very* difficult to implement. So far only systems which operate as *primary* propulsion have demonstrated this level of throttling, and its *down* to 10% (5% in the case of the vertical launched solid fueled missile with its throat mounted pintle throttle, that the Reg has covered in the past) not up to 1000% of normal thrust. A more typical range for this size of thruster is -50%/+15%. Dragon does not seem to *have* a primary propulsion system like the Apollo SM (the big nozzle at the back).

      Spacex's propulsion team have demonstrated they are *highly* competent at both the design and implementation of engine and thruster systems. I believe they are fully up to this challenge and may have done some informal preparatory work already.

      I think people will be unprepared for the solution they ultimately design and execute.

      Going on the animations that Spacex has released it *would* operate in 3 modes. Normal (attitude and small delta v corrections), emergency separation and precision terminal landing IE releasing the parachutes and canceling the last few hundred meters of altitude and 10s of metres of velocity with a final blast.

      If Spacex cannot deliver this (Let me repeat I *fully* expect them to deliver it) the only US organisation I am aware of with experience in this field is ATK (or Aerojet as they were known in Apollo) and I *strongly* doubt they could deliver this for that kind of money. This is just an observation that *very* few US organisations have *any* experience in this highly specialised field.

      I wish them every success with the programme and hope they will be ready for Oct 1st 2013 but will be *very* surprised if they don't make April 2014.

  27. twelvebore


    Chop chop then. If you can do it, do it. Mars is only 18 months away, so what's stopping you? Looking forward to the first tweet from Mars. All privately funded of course.

    Would be even better if the technology had been entirely privately funded, rather than "standing on the shoulders of giants", with the giants being the giant piles of cash spent by the Western and Eastern Bloc governments throughout the Hot and Cold Wars developing the basic under-pinnings of this private-sector-poster-child technology.

    So much easier to do stuff on the cheap if you build it on someone else's IP without paying the full costs.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      "with the giants being the giant piles of cash spent by the Western and Eastern Bloc governments throughout the Hot and Cold Wars developing the basic under-pinnings of this private-sector-poster-child technology."

      Before you complain about the *shocking* waste of money factor in the following.

      The origins of this technology were *entirely* military. Specifically the desire to drop an H bomb on a target on the other side of the world ASAP and without *any* possibility of interception.

      *Everything* else was a side benefit of those efforts.

      Part of NASA's *job* is to make available to US industry the results of most of its research. It's pretty good at allowing others to look at its research. Sort of casting your bread on the waters to get it back a thousand fold.

      NASA has *never* seriously pursued the idea that *cheaper* launch could mean *more*, despite having bank rolled *lots* of research in various technologies.

      At least one of the core technologies Spacex uses (the radial inflow turbines driving Merlin propellant pumps) has *never* been seriously investigated in the US for rocket propulsion.

      (although Russian systems seem to use it a fair bit). It could have been, but it never has been investigated.

      BTW NASA does license various products and technologies, along with co-development deals to improve things first developed inside NASA. The Spacex ablative coating is a tweaked version of something initially developed by NASA Ames after a gap of several decades as *no* US company had upgraded the products they offered in this area.

      "So much easier to do stuff on the cheap if you build it on someone else's IP without paying the full costs."

      It's part of NASA's remit to make its research available.

      What would you prefer they do?

    2. Robert Hill

      Private -> Government -> Private

      Sure, NASA, the Air Force, and the Russians all made huge strides...but where did THEY start from? Umm, the work done for decades by private rockateers, such as Robert Goddard, Hermann Oberth, and Werner von Braun (yes, von Braun went on to work for the military, but he started in rockets before that as a private citizen). The point is, neither governments nor private enterprise can claim NOT to have re-used the work of others - that is the way of scientific progress...

    3. Brutus


      So, in your world, everyone should should invent everything from scratch (and presumably discover the physical principles behind the inventions as well) in order for you to recognise their achievement ?

  28. Robert E A Harvey

    get on with it!

    >The only thing that's for sure here is that based on the story so far it would

    >be unwise to totally discount what Musk and SpaceX say - no matter how

    >far-fetched it may seem

    Doesn't seem far fetched to me. For God's sake, from Gagarin to Apollo's landing was barely 9 years, with vacuum tube technologies and no microprocessors.

    We have had 50 years of "research" in LEO about the effects on humans of being in space,, 50 years of building launchers. We don't need to wait any longer. Lets bloody get on with it before we run out of anything we can use for fuel!

    1. Tom 13

      I would go so far as to say that from an Engineering perspective,

      we are far closer to putting a man or woman on Mars than we are to having an effective electric-only car.

      1. ian 22

        Define "effective"

        A Nissan Leaf effectively covers my daily/weekly/monthly travel requirements. The once-yearly journey is by aircraft, and so no car is required.

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Robert E A Harvey

      "We don't need to wait any longer. Lets bloody get on with it before we run out of anything we can use for fuel!"

      Because it's the bucks that make the Buck Rogers.

    3. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Rober E A Harvey

      ". For God's sake, from Gagarin to Apollo's landing was barely 9 years,"

      You might like to review your history.

      Gagarin orbits the Earth 1956

      NASA formed 1958

      Apollo lands on the Moon 1969

      9 years would be 1965. which would be about the time of Gemini.

      1. Jared Hunt

        @ john smith 19

        You might want to review your history too - Gagarin Flew in 1961. That's why there was all that guff last week about it being the 50th aniversary of his flght. You're probably thinking of Sputnik, although that was in 1957.

        1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

          @Jared Hunt

          "You might want to review your history too - Gagarin Flew in 1961. "

          I stand corrected.

          However NASA's formation in 1958 was partly (mostly?) triggered by the orbiting of Sputnik 1 in 1956. It started looking at ways to respond to this event *very* shortly afterward.

          11 years from *no* successful launches to 2 men on the moon is still *very* impressive.

          It's amazing what you can do *provided* money is *literally* no object.

          I would maintain that Apollo's biggest legacy is that it *could* be done and the engineering data needed to tell future developers what you have to be able to *do* to repeat it.

          *How* you meet those requirements determines if you can do it at an Apollo price tag or *considerably* cheaper.

    4. sT0rNG b4R3 duRiD


      2063: Zefram Cochrane invents warp drive.

      Just wait, lads.

  29. Dodgy Geezer Silver badge

    Millionaire has a spaceship that can land on Mars?

    That's nothing - I have a brick in my garden that can land on Mars just as effectively. In fact, I think I have it here in my pocket.....

  30. mhenriday

    I should have thought that El Reg readers -

    not least those who read Mr Page's articles - would be familiar with the concept of «vapourware». Perhaps Mr Page could join Mr Musk on the(presumably nuclear-powered) voyage to Sol 4 ? I'd certainly raise a toast to that....


  31. solaries

    Mars Here We Come

    Well it's Elon Musk to the rescue again one of the few people breathing life into the man space program that been dormant all these years and maybe Mars voyage go Must onward to Mars may you succeed in your dreams.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      "one of the few people breathing life into the man space program that been dormant all these years"

      Sadly the US manned space programme has *not* been dormant.

      Both Shuttle and ISS are major *parts* of it.

      They've been fantastically expensive (Big Aerospace made a packet of cash on *every* re-design of what is now called ISS *before* a single piece of metal was cut).

      Musk is *not* running a space programme. He wants to sell his companies products to other people so they can run *theirs* in a much more economical way.

      When launch costs drop 10x (which is what he claims 4 flights a year of Falcon 9 Heavy will give) missions that look stupidly expensive *start* to become affordable.

      *Provided* NASA (and the key Senators of Alabama and Florida, whose behaviour would disgrace a badly behaved 6 year old) get used to the idea that NASA should *not* design launch vehicles any more and when they do issue RFP's stop writing them so the only design they will accept is already *in* the proposals (IE "what" it has to do, not "how" it has to do it).

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

        I can't believe I missed the Rep Senator for Utah.

        Home state of Thikol, the maker of the Shuttle SRBs and just about the worst location to set up a factory to produce a *large* solid fueled booster rocket *unless* you plan to launch on site.

        His rabid support for the SLS and "Libety" concepts has been especially unimpressive.

        No suggestion of a reasoned debate here.

        More the Mayor in Robocop (without a request for a car that has really sh***y gas mileage).

        A full blown pacifier ejection event in progress.

        The Augustine commission noted that to carry out the Shrubs plan to return to the moon would take a *real* increase in the NASA budget (excluding inflation) of 50%. Their message to the Senate and the Congress was If you want to do this give them the *real* money necessary to do it or stop forcing them to look at it and keep working on it.

        American readers might like to contact their relevant representatives (particularly their Congress people) and ask them why they are forcing NASA to continue to develop Ares (roughly 75% of the original budget) when they were asked *not* to by the president.

  32. Anonymous Coward


    It looks like Nevada with a red gel over the lens.

    Does Mars even exist?

  33. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    The articles does not say what people *think* it says.

    The press release on which it's based states the next version of the Dragon capsule will support a rocket assisted landing, which allows corrections *after* the parachutes (which are currently normal *round* ones for triple redundancy and which can be steered, but not to the extent a parafoil can be) are jettisoned.

    While still limited this architecture has more flexibility than the Shuttle (it's not the *vehicle*. It's the 1600m pancake flat *runway* you need first. And of course all the other parts you'd need to get *back* to orbit).

    In fact the release makes *no* mention of weather Dragons Picax TPS *could* survive an entry into say the Mars atmosphere. Although it can survive Earth entry from a Mars return. Just that once *implemented* the upgraded systems will allow *precision* landing. mUsk has described this as being like a helicopter landing pad.

    BTW Draon parachutes are *not* stored at the top like Apollo (according to pictures in Dwayne Day's article in Spaceflight). They are stored roughly above the heat shield with the ropes running down the side of the capsule in channels which are blown off as part of the landing.

    This keeps the top end clear for the fairly large diameter ISS docking port.

    It also puts a big storage space just above the heat shield. Ideal *if* you wanted to replace the parachutes with some sort of rocket engine to land on something like the moon (or Phobos or Deimos perhaps). Something with a huge extensible nozzle that punches through the base (like the Stephne Baxter Mars vehicle modeled on the Chrysler SERVE design) Alternatively this *might* supply enough propellant storage space to fly the mission by fueling the thrusters while keeping the capsule heat shield end down.

    Spacex has noted the *huge* cost savings to be had by making vehicles out of *slightly* different parts with *lots* of commonality. Continuing this chain of thought would have them stay with a Dragon capsule for landings but discarding it and moving to *another* Dragon for Earth landing.

    Just a thought.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      @John Smith 19

      Writing has been effective as a means of communication for many hundreds of years without every other word being punctuated with *asterisks*. Most people are capable of understanding the meaning conveyed in writing without needing the intended emphasis to be thrust in their faces.

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

        @Your Retarded

        "Writing has been effective as a means of communication for many hundreds of years without every other word being "

        If you're Chinese that would be several thousand.

        I've tried it various ways. Some get it without emphasis. Some don't get it without emphasis and some spend their time complaining.

        Do you have a comment on the contents of my posts *other* than my writing style?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Paris Hilton


          I just thought my pupils had probably turned into asterisks after reading all that!

          Paris seems to be trying to dislodge punctuation from her face as well...

  34. GoldenRule


    When Mr. Millionaire doesn't come back, who gats the money? // Jean Clelland-Morin

  35. Dave Walker

    Comparative Technology

    There are some relevant points to consider when seriously discussing routine access to Mars

    1) Pace of technologic development and cost: Gagarin to Armstrong/Aldrin was 8 years, but the Apollo craft was very delicate, very expensive, pushed every envelope to the breaking point and was therefore very dangerous despite the relatively few serious accidents given the nature of the beast.

    2) Moving from experimental to production technology: One goal of the new companies is to make the craft more reliable, use less experimental technology, and make it more comfortable. Both Apollo and Shuttle are experimental technology that require large staffs of highly trained people to operate; the ground operations for Shuttle are a significant part of the program. Early autos required frequent maintenance (tire repair, water, oil, etc...) and still broke down frequently. Today cars go forever despite the lack of maintenance we give them. Form factor aside the Orion and Dragon craft are as completely different than the Apollo craft as a Model T is from a Honda Civic.

    3) Sustainable interplanetary infrastructure: for reliable access to Mars we need to invest in something like the Aldrin Cycler. A quick shot to the Mars, like the one to the Moon, is akin to the Lewis and Clark expedition. To open up the frontier the government, decades later, invested in the railroads which provided frequent, reliable, and sustainable round trip capacity. They took longer to build than the carts and boats that took Lewis and Clark, but made settling the West possible.

    Just my 2c

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Dave Walker

      "To open up the frontier the government, decades later, invested in the railroads which provided frequent, reliable, and sustainable round trip capacity."

      I'm not sure the US Gov actually *invested* in the building of the railroads.

      AFAIK they made land grants to deal with the *route* but otherwise the railroads were *privately* financed. I recall that it was the ownership of this transport network by a *very* few large families (Van der Bilts and Rockerfellers?) that meant they could dictate prices for things like transporting oil. Sure they'd *let* competitors transport their goods, but at rates which were extortionate, slowly strangling the competition.

      IIRC it was one of the triggers for the first anti trust/monopoly laws being enacted in the US.

      It's always wise to check that we recall history as it *was*, rather than how we would like it to have been based on c140 year difference in PoV.

  36. Cochituate

    Billionare Space Club

    Team Musk with Bigelow (the space hotel folks), and you've got a winning combination that would have a space big enough to make the trip enjoyable, and give the landing team a nice space to spend their time. Orbital module, hotel space, and a cottage to visit. Hell, I'd go too.

  37. Andydaws

    All we need now

    is someone like Musk backing the development of a proper NERVA system and we'll get real interplanetary spaceflight.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      "is someone like Musk backing the development of a proper NERVA system and we'll get real interplanetary spaceflight."

      This may interest you.

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