When NASA and SpaceX announced April 27 that they had modified an existing unfunded Space Act Agreement that involves the company’s “Red Dragon” Mars lander concept, it was, unsurprisingly, SpaceX that got all the attention. No company has ever flown a private Mars lander, and not even NASA has landed a spacecraft as large as SpaceX’s Dragon. Moreover, Red Dragon is the latest sign that SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, are serious about pursuing a long-term goal of Mars settlement.
But what’s in it for NASA? The answer might be summed up in two words: supersonic retropropulsion, a landing technology that the agency increasingly sees as critical to its own Mars goals.