David Szondy at Gizmag has a brilliant review of SpaceX's plans for the future, and how the failures of NASA and now the Russian space agency, Roscomos might allow the company to become one of the leaders in manned space flight.
Established in 2002 by Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal and the Zip2 Corporation, SpaceX has already developed two brand new launch vehicles, established an impressive launch manifest, and been awarded Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) funding by NASA to demonstrate delivery and return of cargo to the International Space Station. Supported by this order book and Mr. Musk's substantial resources, SpaceX is on an extremely sound financial footing as we move towards volume commercial launches.
Although drawing upon a rich history of prior launch vehicle and engine programs, SpaceX is privately developing the Dragon crew and cargo capsule and the Falcon family of rockets from the ground up, including main and upper stage engines, the cryogenic tank structure, avionics, guidance & control software and ground support equipment.
Though the next step SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft is a rendezvous and possible docking with the ISS, Elon Musk's publicly stated final goal for the Dragon is much larger: The colonization of the planet Mars. In a recent interview with New Scientist magazine, Musk said that he wants to see 10,000 people living on Mars in the near future - preferably, millions of people. To help bring this about, the ultimate goal for the Dragon spacecraft is to execute a manned landing on the red planet within 20 years. Not only that, but Musk plans to do it at a mission cost of only US$5 billion dollars - maybe even as low as US$1 billion.“I really want SpaceX to help make life multi-planetary,” Musk said in a Wall Street Journal interview. “I’d like to see a self-sustaining base on Mars.”
Szonndy also outlines how SpaceX is efficiently tracking a path to space development.
SpaceX uses a form of parallel development that aims at building launchers and capsules that will carry out the client missions yet are also incremental steps in a longer development program. In this respect, this approach is similar to that of the US Navy's Polaris submarine program of the 1960s where the submarines were designed to carry the missiles that would be available ten years in the future as well as those ready to deploy at the time the boat was built. With SpaceX's launcher's and capsules, each one is an improvement on a basic design that was created with those improvements in mind. The Falcon 1 booster was built with an eye on the much larger Falcon 9, which was was built looking forward to a Falcon variant that will be larger and more powerful than NASA's famed Saturn V booster that sent the first men to the Moon. The same goes for the capsule with the first test bed versions intended as direct ancestors of the later cargo and passenger variants.
NASA is already looking at using the Dragon spacecraft modified as an unmanned lander to search for life on Mars. The possibility of a lander that could touch down on Martian soil without parachutes or airbags is certainly attractive. It also has eerie echoes of the Age of Exploration when Europeans set out on voyages of discovery in off the peg merchant and war ships. According to Szondy, converting an orbital cargo ship into a deep space explorer is a move that Captain Cook would have approved of.