Artist’s illustration of the Red Dragon capsule.
In April 2016, SpaceX made the bold proclamation that it will send a robotic mission to Mars by 2018.
Today, the Elon Musk-founded company is singing a different tune.
Instead of aiming for the 2018 deadline, SpaceX will now try to launch a robotic mission to Mars — known as its Red Dragon mission — two years later, in 2020, SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said during a press conference Friday.
This delay will allow the company to refocus on other more, earthly ambitions in the near term before setting its sights on Mars down the road.
"We were focused on 2018, but we felt like we needed to put more resources and focus more heavily on our crew program and our Falcon Heavy program, so we’re looking more in the 2020 time frame for that," Shotwell said.
Artist’s illustration of a Mars landing.
The 2020 mission should involve sending a Dragon spacecraft to Mars using the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket — the largest launcher SpaceX has ever built, designed for heavy payloads and distant parts of the solar system.
SpaceX has yet to launch a test flight of the Falcon Heavy, but Shotwell is confident the rocket should fly on its first mission by this summer.
Musk has also expressed his grand plan to launch a crewed mission to the red planet by around 2024, with a city on Mars coming sometime after that, perhaps in the 2060s, though those plans are still very much up in the air.
Once the Red Dragon mission takes flight, it will be exciting. According to Shotwell, SpaceX will carry science experiments and other payloads to the Martian surface with it.
SpaceX’s move to refocus also makes sense in light of the difficulties SpaceX has faced in the past couple years.
Artist’s illustration of SpaceX’s Dragon on Mars.
In June 2015, a Falcon 9 rocket exploded after launching toward the International Space Station from Florida, and in September 2016, another Falcon 9 exploded during a test before launch.
While SpaceX has weathered those failures (and according to Shotwell, they could weather another if it had to), it has caused some industry experts to question whether the company is up to their ambitious tasks.
The independent U.S. Government Accountability Office recently reviewed SpaceX’s progress toward launching NASA astronauts to the International Space Station aboard crewed Dragon capsules and found that the company will not meet their original 2017 crew launch date.
Boeing, the other company under contract with NASA for these types of launches, will also miss that original deadline.
The office found that those human launches could slip until 2019, though Shotwell said SpaceX will meet its 2018 goal.