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Reusable Space Launch Vehicles are Becoming a Reality

In my 12 April 2016 post, “Landing a Reusable Booster Rocket on a Dime,” I discussed the first successful flights and recoveries of the SpaceX Falcon 9 orbital booster rocket and Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital booster rocket. In the past year, both SpaceX and Blue Origin have successfully launched and recovered several rockets. In addition, SpaceX and Blue Origin both have reused one or more booster rockets that were flown on previous missions.

Here’s a quick look at the SpaceX and Blue Origin track records and their future plans for even more ambitious recoverable launch vehicles. We’ll also take a brief look at what competitors are doing with their existing and planned launch vehicles.

SpaceX reusable booster rockets: Falcon 9 v1.2, Falcon Heavy, and Interplanetary Transport System

The Falcon 9 v1.2 is the current, operational version of this commercial, medium-lift, two-stage family of launch vehicles. This booster has a length of 230 ft (70 m) with the payload fairing and a booster diameter of 12 ft (3.66 m). The first stage generates 1.7 million pounds of thrust from seven Merlin engines burning liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 kerosene. The second stage uses a single Merlin engine optimized for vacuum conditions. The Falcon 9 v1.2 specified payload mass is:

  • 50,265 pounds (22.8 metric tons, 22,800 kg) to Low Earth Orbit (LEO),
  • 18,298 pounds (8.3 metric tons, 8,300 kg) to Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit (GTO), or
  • 8,862 pounds (4.02 metric tons, 4,020 kg) to escape velocity.

Falcon Heavy is an advanced heavy-lift, two-stage launch vehicle with a first stage comprised of three Falcon 9 booster rockets. The first stage generates 5.1 million pounds of thrust from 21 Merlin engines. The Falcon Heavy specified payload mass is:

  • 119,931 pounds (54.4 metric tons, 54,400 kg) to LEO,
  • 48,942 pounds (22.2 metric tons, 22,200 kg) to GTO, or
  • 29,983 pounds (13.6 metric tons, 13,600) kg to escape velocity.

The first Falcon Heavy is expected to be launched in late 2017.

The Falcon 9 v1.2 family and the Falcon Heavy launch vehicles are shown in the following diagram. The scale-up from Falcon 9 V1.2 to Falcon Heavy is relatively straightforward. Versions designed for recovering the first stage include four extendable landing legs near the base of the rocket. In the diagram below, you can see that one version of the Falcon 9 does not include the landing legs, sacrificing booster recovery for greater booster performance.

  Source: SpaceX   

SpaceX describes their Falcon 9 booster recovery process as follows:

“After being jettisoned, the first stage (autonomously) initiates a flip maneuver and begins a powered return back to Earth. Using a combination of reaction control thrusters, forward-mounted grid fins, and thrust from one to three of the main engines, the first stage flies either to a remotely-operated ship in the Atlantic (or Pacific) Ocean, or to land. Upon arrival, the vehicle deploys a set of landing legs and sets itself down upright.”

In practice, SpaceX expects to recover about 1/3 of its boosters on land, back near the launch site. Boosters for most of the remaining missions (primarily the higher-energy missions) will be recovered on a downrange drone ship. You can watch a short video explaining these two mission profiles at the following link:


A recovered Falcon 9 first stage booster rocket is very large:

  • overall length of about 151 ft (46 m) in landing configuration,
  • dry mass is about 50,706 pounds (23,000 kg), and
  • estimated total mass is 94,578 pounds (42,900 kg) with 5% residual fuel after landing.

The large scale of the Falcon 9 booster is apparent in the following photo taken after a landing on the stationary drone ship.

Source: SpaceXSource: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

You can see a video of the January 2017 Falcon 9 v1.2 launch and booster recovery at the following link:


The SpaceX mission on 30 March 2017 marked two important milestones:

  • The first reuse of a Falcon 9 booster stage, which was recovered on the drone barge and will be available again for reuse.
  • The first recovery of the costly (about $6 million) payload fairing, which was jettisoned during ascent and returned under parachute for an ocean splashdown.  The payload fairing will be reused.

As of 3 April 2017, the SpaceX Falcon 9 scorecard is:

  • Thirteen booster recoveries attempted
  • Three successful recoveries on land; first in December 2015
  • Six successful recoveries on a drone ship at sea, first in April 2016
  • Four drone ship recovery failures
  • One booster stage reused

The number of times a Falcon 9 first stage can be re-flown is not clearly specified. However, Elon Musk placed that number at 10 – 20 additional missions, and, with minor refurbishment, up to 100 missions.

Falcon Heavy missions will involve considerably more complex, simultaneous, autonomous booster recovery operations. The port and starboard Falcon 9 boosters will separate first and fly to designated recovery points, likely on land. The core booster will burn longer before separating from the second stage, which will take the payload into orbit. After separation, the core Falcon 9 booster also will fly to a designated recovery point, likely on a downrange drone ship. After a Falcon Heavy launch, it literally will be raining Falcon 9 boosters. This will be a spectacular demonstration of autonomous flight control and range safety.

You’ll find a list of Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches, booster recovery status, and future missions at the following link:


SpaceX has been developing the recoverable Dragon space capsule as a family of spacecraft to be launched by the Falcon booster to conduct a variety of orbital and interplanetary missions. Like the recoverable Falcon booster, the Dragon capsule uses aerodynamic forces to slow its descent into the atmosphere and rocket propulsion for the final landing phase.

  • Dragon CRS: Since October 2012, this unmanned cargo version of the Dragon space capsule has been conducting Commercial Resupply Service (CRS) missions to the International Space Station (ISS) and returning cargo to Earth.
  • Dragon CRS “free-flyer”: The Dragon capsule also can operate independently in Earth orbit carrying a variety of payloads and returning them to Earth.
  • Dragon 2: This is a human-rated version of the Dragon space capsule. The first manned orbital flight in expected 2018.
  • Red Dragon: This is an unmanned version of Dragon 2 adapted for a mission to Mars and launched by a Falcon Heavy. Red Dragon is designed to make a propulsive landing on Mars’ surface with a 2,200 pound (1,000 kg) payload. The first launch of a Red Dragon mission could occur as early as 2018. Thereafter, SpaceX plans to conduct “regular “ (as suitable launch windows occur) Red Dragon missions to Mars.

The SpaceX Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) is a concept for an enormous launch vehicle, a manned interplanetary spacecraft, and a tanker spacecraft for refueling the interplanetary spacecraft in Earth orbit before starting the interplanetary phase of the mission. ITS will enable transportation of a large crew and equipment to Mars starting in the late 2020s. Later, when propellant plants have been established on distant bodies in the solar system, the ITS interplanetary spacecraft will be able to refuel in deep space and journey beyond Mars. The ITS is “conceptualized to be fully reusable with 1,000 uses per booster, 100 uses per tanker and 12 round trips to Mars with one spacecraft over a period of over 25 years.”

As shown in the following diagram, the ITS booster rocket carrying the interplanetary spacecraft is much larger than the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Saturn V used in the 1960s and 1970s on the Apollo lunar missions. At launch, the ITS will be 400 ft (122 m) tall and 39.4 ft (12 m) in diameter.

  ITS & Saturn V. Source: SpaceX

 With 42 Raptor sub-cooled liquid methane / liquid oxygen engines, the first stage will have a liftoff thrust of about 26 million pounds, which is more than three times the thrust of Saturn V. This engine configuration is reminiscent of the Soviet N-1 moon rocket, (circa late 1960s), which clustered 30 engines in a similar configuration.

  ITS 1st stage Raptor engines. Source: SpaceX

The ITS specified payload mass is:

  • 1 million pounds (500 metric tons, 500,000 kg) to LEO with a fully expendable booster, or
  • 661,000 pounds (300 metric tons, 300,000 kg) to LEO with a reusable booster

ITS can lift ten times the payload of the Falcon Heavy booster.

The first stage of the ITS launch vehicle will be designed to fly back to the launch site for rapid servicing and reuse (i.e., to launch the refueling tanker spacecraft). In landing configuration, the ITS booster stage will be about 254 ft (77.5 m) long with a dry mass of about 275 tons (25 metric tons, 250,000 kg).

You can watch Elon Musk’s briefing on the ITS concept, including a short video of the ITS launch and interplanetary mission profile, at the following link.


Can you spell A M B I T I O U S? The SpaceX ITS concept certainly is ambitious, but it offers a much more compelling vision of future manned spaceflight than anything NASA has offered over the past decade.

Blue Origin reusable booster rockets: New Shepard and New Glenn

New Shepard is a small, single stage, suborbital rocket intended for research and commercial passenger service to the fringe of space, above the Karman line at 62 miles (330,000 ft, 100 km) above the Earth. New Shepard is named for Project Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard, who, on 5 May 1961, made the first U.S. suborbital flight in the Freedom 7 capsule launched from Cape Canaveral by a Redstone rocket. The New Shepard, in launch and recovery configurations, is shown in the following figure.

Source: https://www.stlfinder.com/3dmodels/Besos

You can see a short video showing the June 2016 fourth launch and recovery of the New Shepard booster and capsule at the following link:


As of 3 April 2017, the New Shepard scorecard is:

  • Six booster recoveries attempted
  • Five successful recoveries on land; first in November 2015
  • One booster recovery failure
  • One booster stage recovered and used five times

In all of these New Shepard unmanned test flights, the passenger capsule was recovered.

Blue Origin expects to conduct the first manned tests of New Shepard in late 2017. Commercial passenger flights, with up to six people in the space capsule, could begin in 2018.  Blue Origin has stated that they may be able to conduct as many as 50 New Shepard flights per year.

You’ll find a list of New Shepard launches and booster recovery status, at the following link:


On 29 March 2017, the National Aeronautic Association (NAA) announced that it selected Blue Origin New Shepard to receive the prestigious 2016 Robert J. Collier Trophy. The award reads:

“… for successfully demonstrating rocket booster reusability with the New Shepard human spaceflight vehicle through five successful test flights of a single booster and engine, all of which performed powered vertical landings on Earth.”

You can read the complete NAA press release at the following link:


On 12 September 2016, Jeff Bezos announced Blue Origin’s plans to develop New Glenn, which is a very large, heavy-lift, 2- or 3-stage reusable launch vehicle. New Glenn is named for Project Mercury astronaut John Glenn, who, on 20 February 1962, became the first U.S. astronaut to reach orbit. John Glenn flew in the Friendship 7 capsule launched from Cape Canaveral by an Atlas rocket.

The size of New Glenn is apparent n the following diagram. The two-stage version will be 270 ft (82 m) tall, and the three-stage version will be 313 ft (95 m) tall, approaching the size of NASA’s Saturn V.

Source: Blue Origin

 The New Glenn first stage is powered by seven BE-4 methane / LOX engines rated at a combined 3.85 million pounds of thrust (about ½ of the Saturn V), the second stage is powered by a single BE-4 engine optimized for vacuum conditions and rated at 550,000 pounds of thrust, and the third stage is powered by one BE-3 liquid hydrogen / LOX engine rated at 110,000 pounds thrust. The BE-4 engines in the reusable first stage are designed with a 100-flight lifetime.

A more detailed size comparison between New Shepard, Falcon 9 and New Glenn is shown in the following diagram.

  Source: zisadesign I /u/zisa

The scale-up from New Shepard, which is not yet operational, to New Glenn is tremendous. The specified payload mass for the two-stage version of New Glenn is:

  • 99,000 pounds (45 metric tons, 45,000 kg) to LEO,
  • 29,000 pounds (13 metric tons, 13,000 kg) to GTO

The three-stage New Glenn will carry heavier payloads.

The first stage of the New Glenn booster is being designed to fly to a designated landing site to be recovered. Aerodynamic surfaces on the first stage will give New Glenn more aerodynamic maneuvering capability than the SpaceX Falcon during the descent to landing. On 7 March 2017, Jeff Bezos gave the following details on the recovery of the first stage.

“Those aerodynamic surfaces allow us to operate with very high availability in very high wind conditions……..We don’t want to constrain the availability of launch based on the availability of the landing of the reusable booster. We put a lot of effort into letting the vehicle fly back with aerodynamic surface control instead of with propulsion.”

Of course, rocket propulsion is needed for the final phase of landing on a large, moving platform at sea. The first stage has six extendable landing legs, and can land safely if only five deploy.

New Glenn landing. Source: Blue Origin

You’ll find a short animated video showing the launch and recovery process for New Glenn at the following link:


New Glenn flights are expected to start in 2020, about three years after the first SpaceX Falcon Heavy flight.

What are other launch vehicle competitors doing?

No other operational or planned launch vehicles offer the extent of reusability found in the SpaceX Falcon and ITS and the Blue Origin New Shepard and New Glenn. The following launch vehicles will offer only partial reusability.

NASA: partially-reusable Space Launch System (SLS)

 NASA is developing the SLS to launch heavy payloads into Earth orbit and to launch the Orion manned spacecraft on a variety of near-Earth and deep space missions. As shown in the following diagram,  the SLS booster rocket has a large, liquid-fueled, two-stage core flanked by two large solid rocket boosters manufactured by Orbital ATK.

SLS is designed to put 150,000 to 290,000 pounds (70,000 to 130,000 kg) into LEO.

SLS launch vehicle: Source: NASA

As with the NASA Space Shuttle, the solid rocket boosters are designed to be recovered and reused. However, the liquid-fueled first stage booster is expendable; not designed for reuse.

United Launch Alliance (ULA): partially-reusable Vulcan

ULA currently provides medium- and heavy-lift launch with the expendable Atlas V, Delta III and Delta IV boosters. In April 2015, ULA announced that they were developing Vulcan as their Next-Generation Launch System (NGLS) to support a wide variety of Earth-orbital and interplanetary missions. In August 2016, ULA announced plans to qualify Vulcan for manned space missions.

As shown in the following diagram, Vulcan is comprised of a liquid-fueled, two-stage core rocket that can be augmented with up to six solid rocket boosters as needed for the specific mission. This basic architecture is quite similar to ULA’s current Delta III booster, but on a larger scale.

Vulcan launch vehicle. Source: ULA

Vulcan’s maximum payload capacity is expected to fall between ULA’s current Atlas V and Delta IV boosters. ULA expects that “bare bones” Vulcan launch services will sell for half the price of an Atlas V, which is less costly to fly than the Delta IV.

The Vulcan first stage is not designed to be recovered as a unit and reused like the SpaceX Falcon. Instead, ULA is planning a future version that will be partially reusable. In this version, the engines will be designed to detach from the booster after engine cutoff, descend through the atmosphere inside a heat shield, and deploy a parachute for final descent and recovery.

European Space Agency (ESA): expendable Ariane 5 & partially-reusable Ariane 6

ESA’s current Ariane 5 medium- to heavy-lift booster has a two-stage, liquid-fueled core rocket flanked by two large solid rocket boosters. The basic configuration of Ariane 5 is shown in the following diagram. Ariane V is an expendable booster, not designed for reuse.

Ariane 5. Source: Arianespace

Ariane 5 first flew in June 1996 and has been employed on a wide variety of Earth orbital and interplanetary missions. Versions of Ariane 5 can deliver a payload of more than 44,000 pounds (20,000 kg) to LEO or 23,100 pounds (10,735 kg) to GTO.

In 2014, ESA announced the basic configuration of the Ariane 6 launch vehicle. Like Ariane 5, Arian 6 will have a two-stage, liquid-fueled core rocket flanked by solid rocket boosters.

Ariane 6.  Source: adapted from BBC

Two versions are being developed:

  • Ariane 62, with two solid rocket boosters capable of launching about 11,000 pounds (5,000 kg) to GTO
  • Ariane 64, with four solid rocket boosters capable of launching about 24,000 pounds (11,000 kg) to GTO

Ariane 62 and 64 are expendable boosters, not designed for reuse.

In 2015, Airbus Defense and Space announced plans to develop a partially reusable first stage named Adeline that could enter service on a future version of Ariane 6 in the 2025 – 2030 time frame. Like ULA’s plans for Vulcan, only the Ariane 6 first stage high-value parts (i.e., the engine) would be recovered for reuse.

Stratolaunch Systems: giant aircraft plus potentially reusable, air-launched rocket booster

Paul Allen’s firm Stratolaunch Systems is building what will become the world’s largest aircraft, for use as an airborne launch platform for a variety of booster rockets that will take small-to-medium payloads into Earth orbit. The Stratolaunch Carrier will have two fuselages, six jet engines, a length of 238 feet (72 m), and a wingspan of 385 feet (117 m). The giant plane is designed to carry a rocket and payload with a combined weight of up to 550,000 pounds (250,000 kg) to a launch altitude of about 30,000 ft (9,144 m). Payloads up to 13,500 pounds (6,136 kg) can be delivered to LEO. The Stratolaunch Carrier can fly more than 1,000 miles to reach the launch point, giving it unprecedented operational flexibility for delivering payloads to orbit. An example mission profile is shown in the following figure.

Source: Stratolaunch

In 2014, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) announced that it planned to use Stratolaunch as the launch platform for a scaled version of its Dream Chaser reusable spacecraft, initially for unmanned missions and later for manned missions with up to three astronauts. As shown in the following concept drawing, Dream Chaser appears to mounted on a winged, recoverable booster rocket.  For more information on the Dream Chaser reusable spacecraft, visit the SNC website at the following link:


Stratolauncher Carrier with Dream Chaser. Source: Sierra Nevada

In 2014, a planned partnership between Stratolaunch Systems and SpaceX for an air-dropped version of the Falcon booster failed to materialize. In October 2016, Stratolaunch announced a partnership with Orbital ATK, which will provide Pegasus XL expendable boosters for use in launching small satellites into Earth orbit from the Stratolaunch aircraft.

The Stratolaunch Carrier was reported to be 76% complete in 2016. Stratolaunch Systems expects the aircraft to be operational by the end of this decade. You’ll find more information on Stratolaunch here:


Other launch systems

You’ll find a list of worldwide orbital launch systems at the following link.  Most of these are expendable launch systems.


A comparison of these orbital launch systems is available here:


Not included in the above list is the new Next Generation Launch (NGL) System announced by Orbital ATK on 6 April 2017. Two versions of this new, expendable, three-stage booster will be developed to handle medium-to-large payloads, roughly comparable to the payload capability of the SpaceX Falcon 9 reusable booster. The first two stages of the NGL System will be solid fueled.   First flight is planned for 2021. You’ll find a fact sheet on the NGL system at the following link:


In conclusion

In the highly competitive launch vehicle market, booster reusability should yield a significant economic advantage. In the long run, demonstrating better launch service economies will determine the success or failure of reusable launch vehicles.

While SpaceX and Blue Origin have demonstrated the technical ability to recover and reuse the first stage of a launch vehicle, they have not yet demonstrated the long-term economic value of that capability. In 2017, SpaceX plans to re-fly about six Falcon 9 v1.2 boosters, with even more recycled boosters to be launched in 2018. Blue Origin will likely start New Shepard passenger flights in 2018.

I’m betting that SpaceX and Blue Origin will be successful and reusable boosters will find a permanent role in reducing the price for delivering cargo and people into space.




The Vision for Manned Exploration and Colonization of Mars is Alive Again

On 25 May 1961, President John F. Kennedy made an important speech to a joint session of Congress in which he stated:

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth.”

This was a very bold statement considering the state-of-the-art of U.S. aerospace technology in mid-1961. Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth on 12 April 1961 in a Soviet Vostok spacecraft and Alan Shepard completed the first Project Mercury suborbital flight on 5 May 1961. No American had yet flown in orbit. It wasn’t until 20 February 1962 that the first Project Mercury capsule flew into Earth orbit with astronaut John Glenn. The Soviets had hit the Moon with Luna 2 and returned photos from the backside of the moon with Luna 3. The U.S had only made one distant lunar flyby with the tiny Pioneer 4 spacecraft. The Apollo manned lunar program was underway, but still in the concept definition phase. The first U.S. heavy booster rocket designed to support the Apollo program, the Saturn 1, didn’t fly until 27 October 1961.

President Kennedy concluded this part of his 25 May 1961 speech with the following admonition:

“This decision (to proceed with the manned lunar program) demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline, which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel.

New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further–unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.”

This was the spirit that lead to the great success of the Apollo program, which landed the first men on the Moon, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Ed Aldrin, on 20 July 1969; a little more than 8 years after President Kennedy’s speech.

NASA’s plans for manned Mars exploration

By 1964, exciting concepts for manned Mars exploration vehicles were being developed under National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) contract by several firms. One example is a Mars lander design shown below from Aeronutronic (then a division of Philco Corp). A Mars Excursion Module (MEM) would descend to the surface of Mars from a larger Mars Mission Module (MMM) that remained in orbit. The MEM was designed for landing a crew of three on Mars, spending 40 days on the Martian surface, and then returning the crew back to Mars orbit and rendezvousing with the MMM for the journey back to Earth.

1963 Aeronutronic Mars lander conceptSource: NASA / Aviation Week 24Feb64

This and other concepts developed in the 1960s are described in detail in Chapters 3 – 5 of NASA’s Monograph in Aerospace History #21, “Humans to Mars – Fifty Years of Mission Planning, 1950 – 2000,” which you can download at the following link:


In the 1960’s the U.S. nuclear thermal rocket development program led to the development of the very promising NERVA nuclear engine for use in an upper stage or an interplanetary spacecraft. NASA and the Space Nuclear Propulsion Office (SNPO) felt that tests had “confirmed that a nuclear rocket engine was suitable for space flight application.”

In 1969, Marshall Space Flight Director Wernher von Braun propose sending 12 men to Mars aboard two rockets, each propelled by three NERVA engines. This spacecraft would have measured 270 feet long and 100 feet wide across the three nuclear engine modules, with a mass of 800 tons, including 600 tons of liquid hydrogen propellant for the NERVA engines. The two outboard nuclear engine modules only would be used to inject the spacecraft onto its trans-Mars trajectory, after which they would separate from the spacecraft. The central nuclear engine module would continue with the manned spacecraft and be used to enter and leave Mars orbit and enter Earth orbit at the end of the mission. The mission would launch in November 1981 and land on Mars in August 1982.

Marshall 1969 NERVA mars missionNERVA-powered Mars spacecraft. Source: NASA / Monograph #21

NASA’s momentum for conducting a manned Mars mission by the 1980s was short-lived. Development of the super heavy lift Nova booster, which was intended to place about 250 tons to low Earth orbit (LEO), was never funded. Congress reduced NASA’s funding in the FY-69 budget, resulting in NASA ending production of the Saturn 5 heavy-lift booster rocket (about 100 tons to LEO) and cancelling Apollo missions after Apollo 17. This left NASA without the heavy-lift booster rocket needed to carry NERVA and/or assembled interplanetary spacecraft into orbit.

NASA persevered with chemical rocket powered Mars mission concepts until 1971. The final NASA concept vehicle from that era, looking much like von Braun’s 1969 nuclear-powered spacecraft, is shown below.

NASA 1971 mars concept

Source: NASA / Monograph #21

The 24-foot diameter modules would have required six Shuttle-derived launch vehicles (essentially the large center tank and the strap-in solid boosters, without the Space Shuttle itself) to deliver the various modules for assembly in orbit.

While no longer a factor in Mars mission planning, the nuclear rocket program was canceled in 1972. You can read a history of the U.S. nuclear thermal rocket program at the following links:




NASA budget realities in subsequent years, dictated largely by the cost of Space Shuttle and International Space Station development and operation, reduced NASA’s manned Mars efforts to a series of design studies, as described in the Monograph #21.

Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) conducted manned Mars mission studies for NASA in 1984 and 1987. The latter mission design study was conducted in collaboration with astronaut Sally Ride’s August 1987 report, Leadership and America’s Future in Space. You can read this report at the following link.


Details on the 1987 SAIC mission study are included in Chapter 8 of the Monograph #21. SAIC’s mission concept employed two chemically-fueled Mars spacecraft in “split/sprint” roles. An automated cargo-carrying spacecraft would be first to depart Earth. It would fly an energy-saving trajectory and enter Mars orbit carrying the fuel needed by the future manned spacecraft for its return to Earth. After the cargo spacecraft was in Mars orbit, the manned spacecraft would be launched on a faster “sprint” trajectory, taking about six months to get to Mars. With one month allocated for exploration of the Martian surface, total mission time would be on the order of 12 – 14 months.

President Obama’s FY-11 budget redirected NASA’s focus away from manned missions to the Moon and Mars. The result is that there are no current programs with near-term goals to establish a continuous U.S. presence on the Moon or conduct the first manned mission to Mars. Instead, NASA is engaged in developing hardware that will be used initially for a relatively near-Earth (but further out than astronauts have gone before) “asteroid re-direct mission.” NASA’s current vision for getting to Mars is summarized below.

  • In the 2020s, NASA will send astronauts on a year-long mission into (relatively near-Earth) deep space, verifying spacecraft habitation and testing our readiness for a Mars mission.
  • In the 2030s, NASA will send astronauts first to low-Mars orbit. This phase will test the entry, descent and landing techniques needed to get to the Martian surface and study what’s needed for in-situ resource utilization.
  • Eventually, NASA will land humans on Mars.

You can read NASA’s Journey to Mars Overview at the following link:


NASA’s current plans for getting to Mars don’t really sound like much of a plan to me. Think back to President Kennedy’s speech that outlined the national commitment needed to accomplish a lunar landing within the decade of the 1960s. There is no real sense of timeliness in NASA plans for getting to Mars.

Thinking back to the title of NASA’s Monograph #21, “Humans to Mars – Fifty Years of Mission Planning, 1950 – 2000,” I’d say that NASA is quite good at manned Mars mission planning, but woefully short on execution. I recognize that NASA’s ability to execute anything is driven by its budget. However, in 1969, Wernher von Braun thought the U.S. was about 12 years from being able to launch a nuclear-powered manned Mars mission in 1981. Now it seems we’re almost 20 years away, with no real concept for the spacecraft that will get our astronauts there and back.

Commercial plans for manned Mars exploration

Fortunately, the U.S. commercial aerospace sector seems more committed to conducting manned Mars missions than NASA. The leading U.S. contenders are Bigelow Aerospace and SpaceX. Let’s look at their plans.

Bigelow Aerospace

Bigelow is developing expandable structures that can be used to house various types of occupied spaces on manned Earth orbital platforms or on spacecraft destined for lunar orbital missions or long interplanetary missions. Versions of these expandable structures also can be used for habitats on the surface of the Moon, Mars, or elsewhere.

The first operational use of this type of expandable structure in space occurred on 26 May 2016, when the BEAM (Bigelow Expandable Activity Module) was deployed to its full size on the International Space Station (ISS). BEAM was expanded by air pressure from the ISS.

Bigelow BEAMBEAM installed in the ISS. Source: Bigelow Aerospace

You can view a NASA time-lapse video of BEAM deployment at the following link:


A large, complex space vehicle can be built with a combination of relatively conventional structures and Bigelow inflatable modules, as shown in the following concept drawing.

Bigelow spacecraft conceptSource: Bigelow Aerospace

A 2011 NASA concept named Nautilus-X, also making extensive use of inflatable structures, is shown in the following concept drawing. Nautilus is an acronym for Non-Atmospheric Universal Transport Intended for Lengthy United States Exploration.

NASA Nautilus-X-space-exploration-vehicle-concept-1

Source: NASA / NASA Technology Applications Assessment Team


SpaceX announced that it plans to send its first Red Dragon capsule to Mars in 2018 to demonstrate the ability to land heavy loads using a combination of aero braking with the capsule’s ablative heat shield and propulsive braking using rocket engines for the final phase of landing.

Red Dragon landing on MarsSource: SpaceX

More details on the Red Dragon spacecraft are in a 2012 paper by Karcs, J. et al., entitled, “Red Dragon: Low-cost Access to the Surface of Mars Using Commercial Capabilities,” which you’ll find at the following link:


NASA is collaborating with SpaceX to gain experience with this landing technique, which NASA expects to employ in its own future Mars missions.

On 27 September 2016, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk unveiled his grand vision for colonizing Mars at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. You’ll find an excellent summary in the 29 September 2016 article by Dave Mosher entitled, “Elon Musk’s complete, sweeping vision on colonizing Mars to save humanity,” which you can read on the Business Insider website at the following link:


The system architecture for the SpaceX colonizing flights is shown in the following diagram. Significant features include:

  • 100 passengers on a one-way trip to Mars
  • Booster and spacecraft are reusable
  • No spacecraft assembly in orbit required.
  • The manned interplanetary vehicle is fueled with methane in Earth orbit from a tanker spacecraft.
  • The entire manned interplanetary vehicle lands on Mars. There is no part of the vehicle left orbiting Mars.
  • The 100 passengers disembark to colonize Mars
  • Methane fuel for the return voyage to Earth is manufactured on the surface of Mars.
  • The spacecraft returns to Earth for reuse on another mission.
  • Price per person for Mars colonists could be in the $100,000 to $200,000 range.

The Mars launcher for this mission would have a gross lift-off mass of 10,500 tons; 3.5 times the mass of NASA’s Saturn 5 booster for the Apollo Moon landing program.

SpaceX colonist architectureSource: SpaceX

 Terraforming Mars

Colonizing Mars will require terraforming to transform the planet so it can sustain human life. Terraforming the hostile environment of another planet has never been done before. While there are theories about how to accomplish Martian terraforming, there currently is no clear roadmap. However, there is a new board game named, “Terraforming Mars,” that will test your skills at using limited resources wisely to terraform Mars.

Nate Anderson provides a detailed introduction to this board game in his 1 October 2016 article entitled, “Terraforming Mars review: Turn the ‘Red Planet’ green with this amazing board game,” which you can read at the following link:


71RW5ZM0bBL._SL1000_Source: Stronghold GamesTerraforming Mars gameboardSource: Nate Anderson / arsTECHNICA

Nate Anderson described the game as follows:

“In Terraforming Mars, you play one of several competing corporations seeking to terraform the Red Planet into a livable—indeed, hospitable—place filled with cows, dogs, fish, lichen, bacteria, grasslands, atmosphere, and oceans. That goal is achieved when three things happen: atmospheric oxygen rises to 14 percent, planetary temperature rises to 8°C, and all nine of the game’s ocean tiles are placed.

Real science rests behind each of these numbers. The ocean tiles each represent one percent coverage of the Martian surface; once nine percent of the planet is covered with water, Mars should develop its own sustainable hydrologic cycle. An atmosphere of 14 percent oxygen is breathable by humans (though it feels like a 3,000 m elevation on Earth). And at 8°C, water will remain liquid in the Martian equatorial zone.

Once all three milestones have been achieved, Mars has been successfully terraformed, the game ends, and scores are calculated.”

The players are competing corporations, each with limited resources. The game play evolves based how each player (corporation) chooses to spend their resources to build their terraforming engines (constrained by some rules of precedence), and the opportunities dealt to them in each round.

You can buy the game Terraforming Mars on Amazon.

So, before you sign up with SpaceX to become a Martian colonist, practice your skills at terraforming Mars. You’ll be in high demand as an expert terraformer when you get to Mars on a SpaceX colonist ship in the late 2020s.