By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

SpaceX to send unmanned capsule to Mars by 2018

by in Research.

Mars. (Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture/flickr)

Mars. (Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture/flickr)

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced on Wednesday via Twitter that his firm intends to send an unmanned Dragon capsule to land on Mars as early as 2018. It would be a necessary first step for his goals of sending astronauts to Mars in the mid 2020s and eventually colonizing the red planet.

Following the announcement, there was a frenzy of speculation and doubt as to whether these lofty aims were even slightly plausible in that time frame. NASA, for example, with the resources and long-term perspective of the U.S. government, claims to be on track to send astronauts to Mars only in the 2030s.

NASA said in a statement that it is providing “technical support” for SpaceX’s mission, without financial support. In exchange, SpaceX would provide “valuable entry, descent and landing data to NASA for our journey to Mars, while providing support to American industry.”

Musk has not provided many details on any of SpaceX’s interplanetary plans, although last year he said “When we’re doing regular flights to Mars, that might be a good time to go public. But before then, because the long-term goals of SpaceX are really long term – it takes a long time to build a city on Mars – that doesn’t match with the short-term time frame of public shareholders and portfolio managers that are looking at the two- to four-year time horizon.” However, he has promised to elaborate on his approach to establishing a city on Mars at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico this September. “I think it’s going to sound pretty crazy. So it should be at least entertaining,” he told reporters.

Despite the skepticism, Musk’s efforts are to be commended. With his business savvy and flair for bold announcements, he is bringing space travel to mainstream discussion, unlike NASA’s shrug-worthy plans that invariably seem to be pushed back.

SpaceX will probably fail in its first attempts to reach Mars. But invaluable lessons can be learned from failures, and eventually it will succeed.

For more on space, check out the 2015 BLCS panel Beyond Earth: Insights into Astrophysics.