Main Engine Cut Off

Farewell, Red Dragon

A few weeks ago, I caught wind1 of the news: Dragon 2 propulsive landings had been cancelled2 for both cargo and crew, and thus, Red Dragon was over. The margins were already pretty tight for landings—tight enough to make NASA uncomfortable—and the integrated landing leg-heat shield assembly was problematic.

After a few weeks spent digesting the decision, I can understand the reasoning. Designing and developing solutions to the existing problems would take a lot of time and money. The SpaceX style is to develop their systems iteratively as part of the missions they fly for customers—most notably, the reusability of Falcon 9’s first stage which was developed, tested, and implemented as they flew missions for NASA and others.

Without the ability to develop, test, and implement Dragon 2 propulsive landings on NASA flights, their budget and timeline expanded into unacceptable territory. The NASA decision alone may have added two or more additional years, pushing the first flight to 2022 or beyond, and several hundred million dollars—to cover the cost of engineers, hardware, test flights, and so on—to the Red Dragon project. And needless to say, that would have pushed off the first flight of the Interplanetary Transport System quite a bit.

Red Dragon was a great project as a spinoff of capability developed as part of SpaceX’s work for NASA, but it could not justify the relatively massive additional development cost and time on its own, because it was a developmental dead end. There is almost zero commonality between Red Dragon and ITS—the two spacecraft have entirely different body types, entry interfaces, atmospheric flight profiles, engine types, engine arrangement, control systems, materials, and on, and on.

SpaceX’s Mars-focused resources would be better spent on ITS, and they’re going to double down on it. They’re changing the architecture to accelerate the switch to their next-generation system. My guess is that their target is to have the Raptor-based, fully reusable system flying by 2021 at the earliest, with the first uncrewed mission to Mars in 2022 or 2024.

With that, Red Dragon joins the pile of projects SpaceX has scrapped in pursuit of their vision—Falcon 1, Falcon 1e, Falcon 5, and Falcon 9’s parachutes, to name the infamous few. When circumstances change and they find that something much better is just inches from their fingertips, SpaceX is quick, decisive, and goes all in on the new path. Progress is messy.

And while I understand the reasoning behind this decision, and while I’m excited to see the new path SpaceX has chosen, and while I’m optimistic that the new path will be even better, I can’t help but be hugely disappointed.

The first successful landing of Red Dragon would have been a watershed moment in the history of space. It would have changed everything to see a human-scale spacecraft land on Mars for the first time. More so to have it be a spacecraft that is actively being used to fly astronauts to the ISS. And even more so to have that spacecraft be developed and operated by a private company. It would have changed everything.

For now, we wait. Maybe we wait another 3 or 4 transfer windows.

But that watershed moment is coming. It’s inevitable.

  1. I don’t think they wanted to talk about this until they unveiled the new architecture, but it had started to leak publicly a few days before Elon’s talk. Once it started leaking, SpaceX seems to have thought it better to get out in front of it and be able to shape the story, rather than having rumors percolate for months and have expectations build. ↩︎

  2. This decision also explains why we hadn’t seen a hover test since November, 2015, and why Gwynne Shotwell was vague about Red Dragon on The Space Show. ↩︎