Tech & Science

SpaceX Says It’s Going to Mars, Wins First Air Force Contract for $82 Million

SpaceX mars mission
SpaceX just had a really big day. An artists rendering of a SpaceX capsule on Mars is pictured. SpaceX/Handout via Reuters

SpaceX won its first contract from the Air Force for $82 million, according to SpaceNews. The upstart private American rocket company will launch a GPS satellite for the aerial warfare branch of the U.S. armed forces. The Defense Department received two bids, according to Bloomberg, but it’s unclear who submitted the second one.  According to SpaceNews, the contract is the first of nine the Defense Department will accept bids on in the next three years.

Before SpaceX was cleared to compete for “top secret” missions in May, United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture from defense giants Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co. formed in 2006, was the only group approved by the Pentagon to launch military space projects. The result of this monopoly, according to ULA’s critics, which include Senator John McCain, was higher prices. McCain has also criticized ULA for using Russian-built RD-180 engines in its Atlas 5 rockets. SpaceX’s engines are made in the United States. (ULA had said earlier they would sit out the bidding process for the Air Force GPS project.)

SpaceX has upended the commercial space business by speeding the private use of space and making it cheap to get things into orbit. The top secret contracts from agencies like the Air Force will add to the company's other businesses: transporting equipment for NASA to the International Space Station (ISS) and launching private satellites.

In a separate announcement today, SpaceX said it will work with NASA to send one of its Dragon 2 craft to Mars as soon as 2018. The company says the Dragon 2, currently under development, will have the ability to carry humans as well as cargo, although its trip to Mars will be unmanned.

NASA confirmed the partnership and said it will work with SpaceX as part of its plan for “ sending astronauts to the Red Planet in the 2030s .”

“ In exchange for Martian entry, descent, and landing data from SpaceX, NASA will offer technical support for the firm’s plan to attempt to land an uncrewed Dragon 2 spacecraft on Mars,” NASA says.

SpaceX, which started in 2002, has gotten tantalizingly close to its long term goal of a reusable rocket. The company successfully landed a Falcon 9 rocket on a bobbing ship in the ocean, a feat that promises to reduce the price of getting to space even more by allowing SpaceX to recycle its rocket engines. SpaceX is also working on the Falcon Heavy, a super powerful, larger rocket that would also make space flight cheaper.

SpaceX’s founder, Elon Musk has a history of thinking big. Not only is he the founder of the web payment service Paypal, he also runs the electric car company Tesla. Musk has long said that Mars was a personal goal of his and that humans should colonize the planet, as a backup to Earth. SpaceX was actually born of Musk’s visions for the Red Planet: he wanted to send a greenhouse to Mars, and after investigating, he realized there was no way to do it. So he funded SpaceX with his own money.