Elon Musk plans ‘Red Dragon’ Mars mission for as early as 2018

Somewhere, Elon Musk is bored; you can tell because he starts tweeting like crazy about colonizing the solar system. “Planning to send Dragon to Mars as soon as 2018,” SpaceX tweeted this morning, apropos of nothing. More details followed, in typical Musk style.

Anywhere? Perhaps Venus, someone suggested.

Musk did say that with propulsive landing (as opposed to parachute or impact padding) and the company’s own high-performance heat shield, setting down on the surface of a planet — be it Mars, Venus, or Neptune — would be a cakewalk. But getting there is a different story.

In other words, the first SpaceX missions to Mars will definitely be uncrewed — but that was a given, considering the risks involved. Musk will certainly provide more details later, but there will be as many test runs and supply missions as it takes to bring risk down to an acceptable level.

The Red Dragon concept isn’t new — it’s been talked about for years, but this is as official an announcement as we’ve seen in that time. SpaceX actually put up artist’s impresssions of what a Red Dragon mission would look like late last year.

The cabin will have to be upgraded, as well. Being stuck in an SUV-sized space for even a few hours here on Earth isn’t a pleasant experience, let alone months or years with nothing outside but hard vacuum. No, the current generation of Dragons will stay relatively close to the planet for now, at least when they’ve got people in them.