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Red Dragon touchdown
Artwork shows a Red Dragon capsule firing its thrusters for a Mars landing. (SpaceX Illustration)

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk says he expects to see astronauts flying to the International Space Station on his company’s Dragon capsules by mid-2018 – but is downplaying a technology that would have opened the way for robotic “Red Dragon” missions to Mars.

His comments today at the International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Washington, D.C., lent credence to suggestions that SpaceX was shelving its Red Dragon plan and shifting its focus to an Interplanetary Transport System capable of sending settlers to the Red Planet.

As recently as February, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the first Red Dragon mission could lift off as early as 2020. But Musk confirmed that SpaceX was no longer planning to have the crew-capable Dragon spacecraft, known as Dragon 2, touch down on land using its thrusters and a set of landing legs.

“That was a tough decision,” he said. “Dragon 2 is capable of landing propulsively, and technically it still is, although you’d have to land it on some pretty soft landing pad because we deleted the little landing legs that pop out of the heat shield.”

Musk said it would have take too much effort to get such a configuration qualified for NASA’s use as a transport vehicle for astronauts. He also said he no longer felt the Red Dragon scenario was the best approach for landing on Mars.

“Now there’s a far better approach,” he said. “That’s what the next generation of SpaceX rockets and spacecraft is going to do.”

Musk didn’t provide details, but there have been suggestions that SpaceX would turn to testing a scaled-down version of the Interplanetary Transport System, known informally as the “mini-ITS.” Musk has said he’s revising his grand plan for Mars missions, and may reveal the revision in September at the International Astronautical Congress in Australia.

The size of the ITS spacecraft may end up being reduced so that it’s suited for missions in Earth orbit as well as missions to Mars, Musk said. That would make building the mission architecture more affordable. “I think this one’s got a shot of being real on the economic front,” he said.

Musk said SpaceX’s primary focus was to stay on schedule to start flying astronauts to the space station on the Dragon 2 by the middle of next year, which is in line with NASA’s expectations.

“That’s going to be real exciting,” he said.

Image: Crew Dragon
An artist’s conception shows SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule en route to the International Space Station. (Credit: SpaceX)

He said developing the Crew Dragon has been “way more difficult” than developing the current-generation Dragon capsules, which have helped resupply the space station since 2012.

NASA has exercised far tighter oversight for the commercial crew development program, he said, but the disagreements have been limited to “small, technical bones of contention.”

Musk also said it’s been more difficult than expected to create the Falcon Heavy, a three-core, heavy-lift version of SpaceX’s flagship rocket. The first Falcon Heavy test flight is now scheduled to lift off late this year from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“That requires the simultaneous ignition of 27 orbit-class engines. There’s a lot that could go wrong there,” Musk said. “I encourage people to come down to the Cape and see the first Falcon Heavy mission. It’s guaranteed to be exciting. … There’s a real good chance that that vehicle does not make it to orbit. I want to make sure to set expectations accordingly.”

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