A few weeks ago, as I’m sure most people reading this blog know, Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX announced plans to land their Dragon spacecraft, largely at the company’s expense, on Mars. While this plan is audacious enough, Musk has previously positioned SpaceX’s Dragon capsule as an all-purpose lander suitable to explore almost the entire solar system.
Since Musk’s announcement, I’ve been doing research and thinking about what the availability of a commercial planetary lander might mean for planetary exploration. Even if landing the company’s Dragon spacecraft on Mars proves to be a one-time event, it will demonstrate that the technologies for planetary missions have become widely available.
What if, though, SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft becomes a standard catalog item that could ordered, the way a launch vehicle is? What might the impact be on planetary exploration? As I thought about this, I concluded that three questions are key: How flexible will the Dragon spacecraft be as a payload delivery vehicle? How far afield can it operate in the solar system without design changes so massive that it becomes necessary to essentially redesign it? And how will be missions it might fly be paid for?