On April 27, SpaceX announced it was pressing ahead with plans to send a spacecraft to Mars. In a brief announcement — just a few tweets by the company and its chief executive, Elon Musk — SpaceX said it planned to launch a version of its Dragon spacecraft, without a crew, on a Falcon Heavy as soon as 2018 to land on the surface of Mars.
That “Red Dragon” mission is not a new idea: the company has been working on the concept since 2011, when a joint NASA-SpaceX study found no major showstoppers. A recently updated Space Act Agreement between NASA and SpaceX, where NASA will supply technical expertise in exchange for data from Dragon’s landing on Mars, has given the project renewed attention.
The discussion that followed primarily debated SpaceX’s technical ability to land a Dragon on Mars. The spacecraft would be far larger than anything NASA has landed, and the agency has struggled to develop technologies to land heavier spacecraft. There are also questions about how SpaceX will pay for the mission, and whether the company can meet an aggressive schedule that calls for a launch in about 24 months.
However, the biggest obstacle SpaceX may face in launching Red Dragon may have nothing to do with technology or money. Instead, the company, if it tried to launch today, might not be able to get a launch license because of a gap in regulatory oversight.
SpaceX is a one of a growing number of companies pursuing so-called “non-traditional” markets, including missions to the moon and Mars, satellite servicing, and commercial space stations, that aren’t currently overseen and licensed by government agencies. The State Department has argued in the past that, without a means to provide “authorization and continuing supervision” as required by Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty, it couldn’t support commercial launch licenses for those missions.
There are signs, though, that a solution may soon come. In April, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy submitted a report on the issue to Congress, as required by last year’s commercial space bill. It endorsed an approach modeled on the payload review the Federal Aviation Administration performs for launch licenses to make sure those non-traditional missions don’t conflict with treaty and national security obligations.
Congress may act this year on the is sue. A section of the American Space Renaissance Act, introduced in April by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), contains similar language. Christopher Ingraham, Bridenstine’s senior legislative assistant, said at a May 5 panel in Washington organized by the Secure World Foundation that his office is continuing to refine that section, and hopes to attach it to a bill later this year.
If that effort is successful, it will eliminate one obstacle for SpaceX’s Mars plans, not to mention efforts by Google Lunar X Prize teams to get to the moon before the competition expires at the end of 2017, or any other innovative near-term missions. SpaceX can then focus less on cutting red tape and more on landing on the red planet.