This week, Elon Musk spoke at the International Space Station (ISS) Research & Development Conference held in Washington and provided some updates about the developments in SpaceX programs for the near future. After a number of years of important statements, including the ones about expeditions to Mars, on the contrary this time he had to slow down explaining that there are changes and a number of delays, but suggesting that more news will come in the future.
A change of plans concerns the Dragon V2 spacecraft, for which SpaceX had begun to develop a landing system on a pad using the SuperDraco engines instead of the classic splash down system. Elon Musk announced that he set this project aside at least for now, explaining that it was too difficult to certify that system to use it in manned missions, where the requests are rightly very strict. He admitted that it was a tough decision but in the end he got convinced that there was another approach, especially with for his Mars plans.
Less than a year ago, Elon Musk announced very ambitious plans for Mars, which according to his original schedule were supposed to start in 2018. The problem is that these plans were based on launches of the Red Dragon spacecraft to be carried out with the Falcon Heavy rocket. In both cases, developments are running slower than expected, so the start of missions to Mars, which has already been postponed once to 2020, slip further to a date to be established.
The Falcon Heavy rocket, version with three first stages side by side, has commercial purposes as well so its development is a priority for SpaceX but is being more complex than expected. According to the latest information, the first launch should take place by 2017 but Elon Musk expressed pessimism about its chances of success.
The founder of SpaceX was very cautious in the course of several controlled landing attempts of the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage that were successful. In essence, this is certainly a risky test but it’s difficult to say what are the real chances of the Falcon Heavy’s first tests’ success and its development timeline.
As for the spacecraft’s landing systems, Elon Musk hasn’t specified what’s the other approach. As a result, we’ll need to wait for additional updates to his plans or a new annoucement specifically targeted to this issue to see if there are new surprises.
Landing system problems aside, for the Mars missions Elon Musk announced the Red Dragon spacecraft, a Dragon version specially developed. However, now he seems to be convinced that a larger spacecraft is needed but the change of plans will delay his schedule for years.
For the near future, Elon Musk could focus on commercial missions with satellite launches and the development of the Falcon Heavy rocket and the Dragon V2 spacecraft, in both its cargo and manned versions. There may be an opening to lunar missions, also because SpaceX got hired for a private journey around the Moon.
By its very nature, rocket science is a field in which progress and changes happen very often, as well as delays due to various problems. Even Elon Musk sometimes has to change his plans but eventually gets the results he wanted. Indeed, following SpaceX’s activities is far from boring!