By Brandon Mercer

SILICON VALLEY (CBS SF) — 45 years ago, America landed a man on the moon, and years from now, NASA and Tesla founder Elon Musk hope to have already landed a man on Mars, using Musk’s SpaceX rocket in a public-private partnership that turns the Apollo program model on its head in what NASA dubs the #NextGiantLeap.

Musk predicts in as little as ten years, humans will land on Mars, with or without NASA.  He told CNBC that a 2024 or 2026 landing is not unheard of.

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But, to get there, a lot of development has to be done.  That’s where NASA comes in, with a penultimate step to a human mission.

After three years of research, NASA Ames’ scientists announced that a modified crew-carrying version of the Dragon X capsule from Space X could be a way to make it to the red planet and return samples of rocks, carrying 4,000 pounds of equipment–the most in history.

SpaceX dubbed this spacecraft “Red Dragon.”

The idea for a 2022 mission (or earlier if Musk is in control) would be a precursor to a planned human flight to Mars.

Getting to Mars hasn’t been all that hard. It’s getting the fuel and supplies there to support humans, and then getting the humans back that’s been impossible.  It’s a matter of mass, and the need to slow that mass down to a safe landing on Mars, and then accelerate it back up and out of Mars’ gravity, back to earth, and then finally, slow it down one more time for a descent to earth.  The numbers and speeds are staggering, but that’s where SpaceX comes in.

Speaking at a talk at the SETI Institute, NASA’s Larry Lemke said the idea began with a typical geeked-out discussion of “disruptive technology” to get to Mars.

Lemke has been studying innovative ways to explore Mars for decades, including a Martian airplane, and the Red Dragon capsule.

“Every few years someone comes up with the brilliant idea that we could take spacecraft designed to work near Earth and send it to some other planet and do great things for cheap…. and it almost never works out. Something that works well in one application doesn’t work well in another,” Lemke told the audience.

The scientists were skeptical, but thought it worth exploring.  After running the numbers on the hunch that maybe a Red Dragon could make it to Mars and back, he said, “We convinced ourselves that indeed that was true.”

The initial review was just a sample return mission–digging up some Martian rocks, and bringing them back to earth.  As discussion progressed, the concept of building on the sample return mission to create a human mission started taking shape.

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A competing plan to land a human on Mars involves simply leaving them there, and plenty of people are open to it, but that’s not NASA’s mission.


July 20th, 2014 marks 45 years since Apollo 11 landed on the moon. As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set the lunar module Eagle down in the Sea of Tranquility, and opened the hatch at 7:39 p.m. Pacific time, they took one giant leap for mankind.

The next giant step has always been Mars, but after the end of the Apollo program, it seemed that human exploration beyond earth was dead.  For public space agencies, it may well be, but the public-private partnership could rekindle that spark, using Silicon Valley’s ingenuity coupled with NASA’s infrastructure and funding.

As Lemke put it, NASA would simply “purchase the service of delivering mass to Mars” in a way that would be “considerably cheaper than how NASA would go about it.”

On Thursday, July 24th, actor Seth Green will join Comic-Con in San Diego along with Buzz Aldrin and other astronauts to talk about the future in space, including other capsules and rockets, and eventually that long dreamed of human flight, to the next giant leap.

Use hashtags #NextGiantLeap and #Apollo45 to join in the discussion during the week.

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