How SpaceX And NASA Will Work Together To Put A Dragon On Mars

NASA to take a supportive role in the 2018 mission

red dragon landing
Retro-thrusters could bring SpaceX's unpiloted Red Dragon capsule gently down to the Martian surface.SpaceX

In 2018, SpaceX could become the first private company to land its own spacecraft on Mars. But it doesn't plan to do so alone. NASA wants to see if SpaceX's landing tech could put astronauts on Mars, and to find out, its vowed to help the private company send an uncrewed capsule to the Red Planet.

Spaceflight Now has the details on how the partnership will work.

While SpaceX would fund and build the uncrewed Red Dragon capsule and the Falcon Heavy rocket it launches on, NASA would take a supportive role in the mission, providing communications through the Deep Space Network--a mesh of telescopes around the world that keeps NASA in constant contact with all its spacecraft, despite the Earth's spinning.

NASA will also help locate a landing site for the Red Dragon, Spaceflight Now reports, and will help to prevent Earth microbes from hitching a ride on the Red Dragon and contaminating Mars.

All told, NASA estimates it'll spend about $32 million dollars on the mission--quite a bargain, considering the space agency hopefully get a new landing technology out of it. The Red Dragon would fire retrothrusters to attempt a soft landing on Mars--something that's never been attempted before for such a large spacecraft. SpaceX is expecting to spend about $300 million on it.

By contrast, NASA spent $2.5 billion on the Curiosity rover and its novel "sky crane" landing method.

If all goes well, the Red Dragon mission will pave the way to put people on Mars, either by NASA or SpaceX.