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“Red Dragon” is more than a Thomas Harris novel…

August 8, 2011

Dragon-based Mars lander

Red Dragon was the Thomas Harris novel made into a movie featuring that happy fellow, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. We’re not talking about that here. We’re talking about a possible Mars lander based on the SpaceX Dragon spaceship technology. SpaceX is apparently talking to NASA about the possibility of using it for a mission in 2018 – unmanned of course.

But Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, has plans that are bigger. He sees the Dragon as a component of a manned Mars mission in 10 to 15 years – without the participation of NASA!

All of these would require more delta-v than the Falcon 9 launcher can provide. That’s why they have designed the Falcon 9 Heavy. I love this concept – it’s so von Braun-like. They designed one engine, the Merlin, and just put nine of them in the first stage of the Falcon 9. The Falcon 9 Heavy is three Falcon 9 first stages ganged together. No new technology, no solid booster issues, just more of the same. Just like taking the Jupiter missile and tying a bunch together to make a Saturn I.

Computer rendering of the Falcon 9 Heavy

The really smart thing about this idea is that losing an engine or two doesn’t doom the mission.In fact, the normal flight profile for the Falcon 9 involves early shutdown of two of the engines. Often the reason for fewer larger engines in a design is because using all those smaller ones adds more weight. Apparently the redundancy factor and improvements to engine efficiency offset the added weight. There’s the cost factor as well – they are building only one type of engine so they can lower costs and increase quality.

I think it was Robert A. Heinlein who said, “I was proud to see the first man walk on the moon, I never thought I would live to see the last man walk on the moon.” I was afraid I would never see man land on Mars during my lifetime. I may still get to…

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