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Orbital ATK President David Thompson said today that the new version of the Antares rocket will be rolled out to a launch pad at Wallops Island, VA next week in preparation for a hot fire test later this month and a return-to-flight launch in early July. It will be the first flight of Antares since an October 28, 2014 failure.
A specific date was not provided. Thompson said only that it will be "just after" July 4. If all goes well, a second launch is expected in the November time frame. All of these launches are for NASA's commercial cargo program, taking Cygnus spacecraft loaded with supplies to the International Space Station (ISS). The launches take place from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA. MARS is owned by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, part of the Commonwealth of Virginia's Department of Transportation.
While waiting for Antares to be fixed, Orbital ATK launched two Cygnus spacecraft on United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rockets from Cape Canaveral, FL.
The October 2014 failure occurred when the company was Orbital Sciences Corporation. The mission was called "Orb-3," the third of that company's operational launches to ISS. Orbital Sciences merged with ATK in February 2015, forming Orbital ATK (OA) and its cargo launches now carry "OA" designations. OA-4 was launched in December 2015 and OA-6 in March 2016 on Atlas V rockets. The July launch will be OA-5. (The numbers are out of order because Orbital ATK was expecting Antares to be ready earlier this year and be next after the Atlas V-launched OA-4. Antares slipped, however, so the second Atlas V launch was next. The company kept the mission designations as they were -- OA-5 on Antares and OA-6 on Atlas V.)
The original version of Antares used Russian NK-33 engines built four decades ago and refurbished by Aerojet and redesignated AJ26. Aerojet ultimately agreed to pay Orbital ATK $50 million to settle a dispute as to what precisely happened, the details of which are proprietary.
Orbital ATK replaced the AJ26 engines with new Russian RD-181 engines and it is that "re-engined" configuration that will be tested this month.
Antares is used to fulfill Orbital ATK's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA to take cargo to the ISS. The initial CRS award was for eight flights taking 20 tons of cargo to ISS through the end of 2016. That contract has been extended to cover missions through 2018 and a CRS2 contract was awarded earlier this year giving Orbital ATK additional flights in the 2019-2024 time period.
SpaceX also won cargo flights under the original CRS and CRS2 contracts. Sierra Nevada was added as a third supplier in the CRS2 round.
Thompson announced the Antares return-to-flight schedule during an investors conference call this morning on Orbital ATK's first quarter 2016 financial results. He also said that NASA has awarded the company a fourth extension flight under the original CRS contract for a launch in 2018. He added that the NASA business provides a "solid foundation" for the Antares program through the mid-2020s and he is optimistic that other customers will come forward once the rocket is operational again.
Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump thinks NASA is one of the most important government agencies and wants it to stretch the envelope of space exploration, but is not willing to commit to any funding level. He responded to questions posed by Aerospace America and published in its May issue.
Trump's win in the Indiana primary tonight, and Sen. Ted Cruz's subsequent withdrawal from the race, make it ever more likely that he will be the Republican nominee for President. He has said little publicly about the space program so far. His answers to Aerospace America provide the best clues to his thoughts on NASA's future under a Trump presidency.
Aerospace America is the monthly magazine of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA). It recently sent questions about space and aviation to the five remaining presidential candidates. Trump and Bernie Sanders were the only two to answer the questions. John Kasich's campaign sent an essay written by former Congressman Bob Walker, now a lobbyist who is advising the Kasich campaign. No response was received by the magazine's press time from Hillary Clinton or Ted Cruz.
In brief, Trump said that NASA "has been one of the most important agencies in the United States government for most of my lifetime" and he wants it to remain that way. But in response to a question about whether the United States is spending the proper amount of money on NASA, he demurred: "I am not sure that is the right question. What we spend on NASA should be appropriate for what we are asking them to do. ... Our first priority is to restore a strong economic base to this country. Then, we can have a discussion about spending." He similarly deflected a question about whether sending humans to Mars should continue to be a goal. He strongly supported government-private sector partnerships in space.
His answers to Aerospace America's questions align with comments he made during a campaign stop in Manchester, NH in November. There he offered what has become perhaps his most memorable remark about space exploration, that it is important, "but we have to fix our potholes."
Sanders also won in Indiana tonight, but the outcome of the Democratic primary contest between him and Clinton remains up in the air, although most pundits anticipate that Clinton ultimately will be the Democratic nominee. In his answers to Aerospace America, Sanders was enthusiastic about NASA, particularly for the technological advances stemming from investments in the space program. Like Trump, he deflected the question about spending for NASA because it is a "zero sum game" where allocating money for one program means taking it from another. He supports private sector space activities, but cautioned that they raise safety and national security issues and went on at some length about the importance of government R&D spending generally, not just for space.
Although Clinton did not respond to Aerospace America, she has made it clear in other venues that she is a space enthusiast.
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden announced today that Michael Watkins will succeed Charles Elachi as JPL Director. Elachi announced last year that he will retire at the end of June.
JPL is a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) operated by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). It is a contractor, not a government facility like NASA's field centers around the country (Kennedy Space Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, etc.) Still, it is best known for building many of NASA's planetary exploration spacecraft, such as the Curiosity Mars rover, and NASA refers to it as "NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory."
Watkins was selected to fill the post by the President of Caltech, Thomas Rosenbaum. Bolden said Rosenbaum made "an outstanding choice" and Watkins is "no stranger to the NASA family."
Watkins is currently the Clare Cockrell Williams Centennial Chair in Aerospace Engineering and Director of the Center for Space Research at the University of Texas at Austin, his alma mater. He holds a bachelor's degree, master's degree and Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from the university.
He worked at JPL for 22 years on a variety of planetary and earth science missions. Among them he was the mission manager and mission system manager for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover. He also worked on Cassini, Mars Odyssey, GRAIL, GRACE and GRACE Follow-on. His last JPL position was as manager of the Science Division and chief scientist for the Engineering and Science Directorate.
Elachi will retire as JPL Director on June 30 and Watkins assumes the job on July 1.
Elachi has been director for 15 years and will not be going far. He will be professor emeritus at Caltech and plans to continue working on JPL missions.
The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is proposing to Congress that the Department of Transportation (DOT) be placed in charge of "mission authorization" for new types of private sector space activities in earth orbit and beyond. The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) has been floated as a likely candidate for this role for quite some time. The FAA is part of DOT.
The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) signed into law last November required OSTP to submit a report to Congress assessing current and near-term commercial activities in space. OSTP was also directed to recommend an approach for authorizing and continually supervising those activities as required by Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The term "mission authorization" now is used to refer to authorizing and supervising commercial on-orbit activities such as satellite servicing (including refueling, repair, or adding end-of-life extension modules to existing spacecraft), building orbital habitats, or extracting resources from the Moon or asteroids.
OSTP submitted the report to Congress on April 4. It includes an appendix with draft legislative language designating DOT as the federal agency to grant such authorizations, maintain a registry of those authorizations, and require holders of such authorizations to report on their activities periodically and if there is any material change to their operations. The Secretary of Transportation is required to coordinate with the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, Secretary of Commerce, the NASA Administrator, the Director of National Intelligence, and other appropriate government departments and agencies.
The report does not specify the FAA or FAA/AST, but FAA/AST is the only office within DOT that currently has responsibility for issuing space-related licenses. It facilitates and regulates commercial space launches and reentries. FAA/AST Associate Administrator George Nield has spoken in many venues about expanding that office's regulatory responsibilities to include on-orbit and deep space commercial activities. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) is a strong advocate for that idea.
Nield and Bridenstine also have proposed that FAA/AST assume responsibility for non-military space situational awareness (SAA) duties. DOD's Joint Space Operations Center (JPSoC) tracks objects in orbit and issues "conjunction analyses" -- warnings that a collision may occur -- to other U.S. government agencies, other governments, and commercial entities. Bridenstine argues that JSPoC needs to focus on its military mission of "fighting and winning wars," not on warning NASA or other space operators about potential collisions. He sees a transition where a commercial Conjunction Analysis and Warning Center, overseen by FAA/AST, would fuse unclassified DOD data with data from international partners and commercial operators. At a meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) last week, Nield said that "senior Air Force and DOD leadership are right with us on this one," although "not everyone" in DOD shares the vision. He suggested a quick, inexpensive pilot program to answer questions about how much it would cost and whether the data are accurate. for example.
The OSTP proposal takes a step in that direction. It would authorize the Secretary of Transportation, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, to examine planned and actual operational trajectories of space objects and advise satellite operators so as to prevent collisions.
Bridenstine introduced the American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) on April 14 (H.R. 4945) that is very broad and goes further than the OSTP proposal with regard to SSA. In the longer term, for example, he wants FAA/AST to become a Space Traffic Management (STM) entity with authority to compel operators to move their spacecraft to avoid collisions, though that is some years off. He has stated that he does not expect his bill to pass en toto, but instead is a repository for provisions that will be inserted into other legislation.
The OSTP proposal would not affect activities that are already regulated by the FAA (commercial launch and reentry), the Federal Communications Commission (commercial communications satellites), or NOAA (commercial remote sensing satellites). It also stresses that the intent is not to establish a comprehensive regulatory framework -- that would be premature -- but to "establish a process no more burdensome that is necessary to enable the United States Government to authorize these pioneering space activities in conformity with its treaty obligations, and to safeguard our public interests, such as national security."
Commercial space advocates argue that although the private sector does not seek government regulation, investors want regulatory certainty before they put their money on the table. Therefore clarification is needed on how the government plans to fulfill its obligations under Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty to help incentivize potential investors. Hence the requirement that OSTP make these recommendations, which puts the ball back in Congress's court.
Editor's Note: The Space Studies Board (SSB) and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) held a joint session on April 26, 2016 to discuss the commercialization of Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
SpacePolicyOnline.com's Marc Allen summarizes the discussion in these meeting notes. Participants included:
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of May 2-6, 2016. The House and Senate are in recess this week.
During the Week
With Congress taking a week off from legislative business (while they are back in their States and districts), we have a chance to take a break from the intense activity of the past few weeks. Not that there are no space policy events coming up, but it is much more manageable this week.
Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) will tour the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) facilities at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA on Tuesday. Orbital ATK launches its Antares rocket from Pad-01 at MARS, which is owned by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (VCSFA). Mikulski will be joined by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and other officials from NASA, VCSFA, and Orbital ATK. Mikulski represents Maryland, not Virginia, of course, but Wallops is close to the Maryland-Virginia border and many of the workers reside in Maryland. The press release does not mention that any of it will be televised or webcast, unfortunately. If we hear differently, we will add it to our calendar post.
Orbital ATK is getting ready for a hot fire test of its re-engined Antares rocket at MARS in preparation for the Antares return-to-flight this summer. The last Antares launch ended in failure on October 28, 2014. The company has changed engines -- from old Russian NK-33s refurbished by Aerojet and redesignated AJ26 to new Russian RD-181s. Orbital ATK will hold its quarterly investors conference call on Thursday morning where more information may be available about the timing of the hot fire test and the next launch.
Also on Thursday, the Secure World Foundation (SWF) will hold a panel discussion on "Asteroids, Mining, and Policy" with an impressive list of speakers. Those events are not livestreamed, but SWF typically records them and posts them on their website later. One of the speakers is Rep. Jim Bridenstine's space staffer, Christopher Ingraham. Bridenstine was one of the key Members of Congress in getting the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act passed last year, with its asteroid property rights provisions. Should be very interesting. Be sure to RSVP by tomorrow (May 2) if you want to attend in person.
Those events are listed below. Check back throughout the week for additional events we become aware of and add to our Events of Interest list.
Tuesday, May 3
Thursday, May 5
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced today that the anomaly on its Atlas V rocket during the launch of Orbital ATK's OA-6 cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) was due to a malfunctioning valve. The Atlas V first stage under performed, but the Centaur upper stage was able to compensate and OA-6 reached the ISS successfully.
During the March 22 launch, the Atlas V first stage shut down six seconds early. The Centaur upper stage rescued the mission by firing 60 seconds longer than planned, placing Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo spacecraft into its proper orbit nonetheless. Cygnus reached the ISS on schedule.
ULA quickly determined the problem was in the RD-180 engine's fuel system and decided to postpone the next scheduled Atlas V launch until it understood and remedied the problem. The Navy's fifth Multi-User Objective System (MUOS-5) communications satellite was scheduled for launch on May 5. That date slipped to May 12 and then indefinitely.
Today, ULA issued a statement that the RD-180's Mixture Ratio Control Valve assembly had caused a reduction in fuel flow during launch and all RD-180 engines are now being inspected. It did not announce a new launch date for MUOS-5, saying only that the launch will be in "early summer." The company asserted that all its Atlas V launches planned for 2016 "are expected to be successfully executed by the end of the year." That includes NASA's robotic asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-REx, scheduled for September.
Russia's RD-180 engines are currently the topic of considerable controversy. Following Russia's actions in Ukraine, Congress and the Administration became determined to end U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines to launch U.S. national security satellites. Efforts are underway to develop a U.S.-built engine to replace it, but there are disputes about the timing of transitioning from the RD-180 powered Atlas V rockets to something new.
The full text of the emailed ULA statement is as follows:
Centennial, Colo., (April 29, 2016) -- ULA successfully delivered the OA-6 Cygnus spacecraft to its precise orbit as planned on March 22. During the launch, the system experienced a premature first stage shutdown. Atlas is a robust system. The Centaur upper stage compensated for the first stage anomaly, delivering Cygnus to a precise orbit, well within the required accuracy. The ULA engineering team has reviewed the data and has determined an anomaly with the RD-180 Mixture Ratio Control Valve (MRCV) assembly caused a reduction in fuel flow during the boost phase of the flight. In addition to analysis and testing, all RD-180 engines are being inspected.
Last Friday, in preparation for the MUOS-5 launch, the Atlas V completed the Launch Vehicle on Stand (LVOS) operation, erecting the Atlas V into the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. LVOS will allow configuration of the vehicle to support RD-180 engine inspections and confirm all engine components are ready for launch. The Atlas V MUOS-5 launch is targeted for early summer; a new launch date has not been secured on the Eastern Range. The impact to the remainder of the Atlas V manifest is in review with new launch dates being coordinated with our customers. All missions manifested for 2016 are expected to be successfully executed by the end of the year, including OSIRIS-REx, which will remain in early September to support its critical science window.
In the wee hours overnight, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) approved an amendment regarding the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) use of Russian RD-180 engines for its Atlas V rocket. The Atlas V launches many national security satellites. Its Russian engines have been a source of contention since Russia annexed Crimea two years ago. The amendment favors ULA and the Air Force versus ULA's competitor, SpaceX. The committee also adopted an amendment allowing government funds to be spent on a new launch vehicle, not just a new engine.
HASC marked up the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) beginning at 10:00 am ET on April 27 and ending more than 16 hours later at 2:34 am ET today (April 28). The very last topic considered just prior to a series of postponed roll call votes was the RD-180 controversy. HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) said it was because negotiations had been underway throughout that time to determine if a compromise could be reached. Apparently it could not.
The fundamental debate has not changed over the past two years. There is broad agreement in Congress, the Administration, and industry that the United States should not be dependent on Russian RD-180 rocket engines to launch U.S. national security satellites and that a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 should be built. The debate is over the timing of the transition from RD-180 powered Atlas V rockets to a rocket using a U.S.-built engine.
ULA has been a monopoly provider of national security launches using its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets since its creation in 2006. ULA is a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing (Delta IV) and Lockheed Martin (Atlas V). In 2015, SpaceX was certified to launch national security satellites in competition with ULA. Yesterday it was formally awarded its first contract for launch of an Air Force GPS satellite. SpaceX's $82.7 million price reportedly was 40 percent less than what ULA has been charging for GPS launches.
ULA did not bid against SpaceX for that launch, publicly arguing that, among other things, it was precluded from doing so because of the restrictions on how many RD-180 engines it could obtain. (Statements made later by a ULA official called that account into question, however, spurring a DOD Inspector General investigation into whether there were contracting improprieties. The investigation is ongoing.)
ULA officials have also indicated that it is difficult for them to compete against SpaceX on price. The company is working to reduce costs by building a new rocket, Vulcan, which will use an American-built engine from either Blue Origin or Aerojet Rocketdyne. The question is when Vulcan will be available. Congress set 2019 as the date by which a new engine must be ready, and there is agreement that is achievable, but the Air Force and ULA argue that it will take 2-3 more years before a launch vehicle using the new engine is certified to launch expensive national security satellites. They want to buy up to 18 more RD-180 engines to ensure the Atlas V is available until Vulcan is certified. Previous NDAAs limited that number to nine, however.
U.S. space transportation policy requires that two separate launch vehicle families be available to launch national security satellites in case there is an accident that grounds one of them. SpaceX advocates argue that its Falcon 9 is one and ULA's Delta IV is the other, and both will be available in 2019 and beyond, so Atlas V is not needed to fulfill the policy. Others worry that if SpaceX's rocket fails, all national security satellites would have to be launched on the very expensive Delta IV. Air Force Secretary James estimates the potential pricetag as $1.5 - $5 billion.
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), is the most prominent voice in holding the line at only nine more engines. That position has the support of some HASC members, including Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), who district is near SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, CA.
Air Force and ULA supporters, including HASC's Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), insist that 18 more are required. His district is close to ULA's headquarters in Centennial, CO. Coffman's amendment to raise the number from nine to 18 was adopted by HASC by voice vote.
Hunter intended to offer an amendment to keep the number at nine, but said that it had been ruled out of order. He insisted that there was no need to commit to 18 now and "line Putin's pockets," referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. "We can get away with with nine or 10 now," he argued, and return to the issue in future years rather than giving Russia "$540 million in direct payments to Russian military modernization." Coffman insisted that the figure of 18 came from the Air Force so that is the requirement.
A long debate ensued about whether the amendment was for 18 or "up to" 18 engines. A verbal understanding seemed to be reached that "up to 18" was intended, although the amendment says "a total of eighteen." Thornberry pointed out that this is an authorization bill and how many are purchased ultimately is determined by appropriations. (In fact, the RD-180 issue splits Senate authorizers and appropriators.)
The origin of the 18 number is complicated. Until last summer, the Air Force and ULA said 14 more RD-180s were needed based on a "block buy" contract that was awarded by the Air Force to ULA in 2013. The block buy was for 36 launches, 29 of which were Atlas Vs powered by Russia's RD-180s. At the time of Russia's incursion into Ukraine in 2014, 15 were purchased, leaving 14, of which 5 were under contract. That left nine. Congress agreed ULA could continue to procure those. Last summer, however, William LaPlante, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition), wrote a letter to Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) asserting that "up to 18" were needed. Air Force officials, including Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, now use 18, or "about 18," as the requirement. LaPlante's letter did not explain how the number was derived, saying only it is "a reasonable starting point to mitigate risk associated with assured access to space and to enable competition." (ULA manufactures its rockets in Shelby's home state of Alabama. Shelby, a top member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and McCain are battling each other over this issue.)
Another layer of the debate is whether research and development (R&D) funding provided by the government to build a U.S.alternative to the RD-180 can be spent only on a new engine or also on a new launch vehicle to go with it. HASC has insisted that the money be spent only for a new engine -- that a new launch vehicle is not required. Others insist that an engine is only part of a launch vehicle and the rest must also be built.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the top Democrat on the committee (whose district is near Blue Origin's rocket engine manufacturing facility in Kent, WA), offered an amendment that allows not more than 25 percent of the R&D funding to be spent on a new launch vehicle, upper stage, strap-on motor, or related infrastructure. The amendment allocates $100 million and specifies where the money comes from, which does not appear to be all from R&D accounts. In response to questions from committee members, Smith explained there is $294 million in the bill for development of the engine and there was money in prior years for the same purpose, but it was only allowed to be used only for the engine. Not all of the prior year money was spent. "This amendment does not add any money to anything. It takes out of that $294 million some money to also help those same companies that are developing the engine develop a launch vehicle to go with it." The amendment was adopted by voice vote.
The debate was fractious, especially considering the hour (approximately 2:00 am ET) and the length of time the committee had been debating the bill (since 10:00 am ET the previous day).
The first launch from Russia's new Vostochny (Eastern) launch site was successful today, 24 hours after a first attempt was scrubbed just 90 seconds before launch. Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the launch, staying an extra day for the second try. During the wait, he criticized "negligent attitudes" in the Russian rocket industry.
Launch of the Soyuz 2-1a rocket was on time at 10:01 pm Eastern Daylight Time (April 28, 5:01 am Moscow Time) and placed three satellites into their initial orbit nine minutes later. The three satellites are:
Russia is building Vostochny to replace or at least reduce its utilization of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in neighboring Kazakhstan. Russia has had to lease Baikonur for $115 million per year from the Kazakh government since Kazakhstan gained its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The construction of Vostochny has been plagued with delays and charges of corruption. Putin referred to them today during a meeting of the state commission that oversaw the launch. While insisting that the spaceport was built within standards, there were "certain problems" resulting in six criminal cases and two individuals in jail and another two under house arrest. "If their guilt is proven, they will have to change their warm beds at home to plank-beds in prison."
He said that Russia is the leader in terms of number of launches, "but it is bad that we're confronted with a larger number of setbacks and the reaction to these setbacks must be timely." He complained about negligent attitudes in the industry and questioned why there was a technical glitch that recently delayed the launch of Europe's Sentinel satellite on a Soyuz rocket from Kourou. (The launch was delayed three times, twice for weather and once for technical reasons).
Overall, however, he was pleased that Russia did not abandon the industry as some proposed in the 1990s: "Thank god we came to our senses, changed our minds in time."
SpaceX announced today that it plans to send a robotic version of its Dragon spacecraft to Mars as early as 2018. Launched on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the "Red Dragon" would land on Mars using its own Super Draco rocket engines. It is a SpaceX mission, but the company has an unfunded Space Act Agreement with NASA for technical assistance.
Elon Musk, SpaceX's founder and lead designer, has made no secret that his overall space goal is sending thousands of people to Mars as a "backup plan" in case a catastrophe destroys Earth or makes it uninhabitable. He plans to lay out details of his plan at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico at the end of September.
Earlier this week, SpaceX and NASA signed an amendment to an existing unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA) setting forth terms for cooperation in the undertaking. NASA's role is only to provide technical support and information, including: deep space communications and telemetry; deep space navigation and trajectory design; entry, descent and landing (EDL) system analysis and engineering support; Mars entry aerodynamic/aerothermal database development; general interplanetary mission and hardware consultation and advice; and planetary protection consultation and advice. The agreement was signed by SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell and NASA's Director for Commercial Spaceflight Development Philip McAlister.
In a blog post today, NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman said that among the many activities NASA has underway with American businesses, "we're particularly excited about" this SpaceX project. "In exchange for Martian entry, descent and landing data from SpaceX, NASA will offer technical support for the firm's plan to attempt to land an uncrewed Dragon 2 spacecraft on Mars."
Musk is well known for announcing bold goals and this certainly fits that bill. The plan is to launch this mission "as soon as 2018," just two years from now, even though the first flight of the Falcon Heavy rocket has yet to take place. The Dragon spacecraft has flown to the International Space Station several times, but each time it returns to Earth, it splashes down in the ocean under parachutes. Using Dragon's own Super Draco engines to land on terra firma is a goal that has not been demonstrated so far, even though that is how the company plans to land on Mars, as shown in this SpaceX illustration.
The Falcon Heavy launch date has slipped several years already and commentators today were skeptical that a 2018 launch to Mars is realistic. Landing on Mars is a challenge under any circumstances, as NASA's "Seven Minutes of Terror" for the landing of the Curiosity rover in 2012 demonstrated. Still, Musk's recent success -- after several tries -- in landing the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket on a drone ship at sea raised his credibility in achieving what he sets out to do.
If successful, this would be the first private sector mission to Mars. The only attempts to flyby, orbit or land spacecraft on Mars so far have been undertaken by governments and it is a record of mixed success.
SpaceX announced the plans in a series of tweets today.
Events of Interest