Inside the first private mission to Mars

NASA's Ingenuity helicopter takes a rest on the surface of Mars.
NASA's Ingenuity helicopter takes a rest on the surface of Mars.
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Mars: So red, so far, so lucrative?

The news that two nascent space companies are planning the first private mission to the planet is exciting, but the question is whether this is a PR stunt, a technology development program, or a business worth investing in. I caught up with Relativity Space and Impulse Space CEOs Tim Ellis and Tom Mueller to get the backstory

This was Relativity’s idea, a way to connect with the company’s founding obsession of building the first factory on Mars with 3D printing technology. The company is getting close to flying its first rocket, the Terran 1, next year, but this mission mission to Mars would mark the first flight of the company’s next-generation rocket, the Terran R, in 2024.

That makes it low risk, Ellis says. They have to build Terran R anyway—the company has sold $1.2 billion worth of launches on the vehicle to OneWeb and other customers. So what’s the best payload for a test flight? Flying a customer’s payload can be risky. Flying a wheel of cheese is fun. Launching a car into deep space is an attention-getter. Relativity wants to go one better: Let’s put the first private lander on Mars.

“When Relativity first approached me to do this, [it] kind of caught me by surprise,” Mueller says. He started Impulse to build space tugs in 2021, after leading propulsion at SpaceX since the company’s inception. “[Ellis] gave me an out, he said, ‘we want to go to Mars, we could go into orbit or we could land.’ I just said, well, we gotta land. So I immediately went for the harder part.”

A hole-in-one from 140 million miles away

Landing on Mars is famously difficult. Only three nations have done the trick, with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory the specialists in this department. Mueller hopes to adapt the entry, descent, and landing approach used by the Mars Insight Lander, which involves using a heat shield to slow down while entering the planet’s atmosphere, parachutes that deploy within it, and finally rockets that fire to bring the whole thing to a soft landing.

That mission cost about $816 million. Ellis says the two companies will be able go to Mars at a cost several times less than that. That’s believable: The mission will be smaller, with “tens of pounds” of scientific payloads arriving on Mars, instead of Insight’s 50 kg (110 lbs). It will cost less to launch than $163 million required for Insight. And the lander itself will rely on a proven design, and not include the cost of the super-sensitive scientific instruments that represented a large chunk of Insight’s cost.

Still, this is a project on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars. The companies hope to recruit a customer who will pay to put scientific instruments onboard the lander, whether that is NASA, another space agency, or a university, which would help defray the cost. At the very least, Ellis says, the lander will collect images of Mars and send them back to Earth.

“We will find someone to put payload even on the very first mission, but it’s not just about a one time mission,” Ellis says. “Once we show that it works successfully and we can do it, this is not ‘a build it and they will come.’ I do think the demand is there. We just need to do it.”

Just getting these vehicles built, tested, and on the pad will be an accomplishment. Then the real fun starts: Mueller notes that problems that might be tolerable on a two-week mission, like a small leak, could ruin a 300-day spaceflight. The precision required to keep antennas and solar panels pointed at the Earth is magnified by the millions of miles the spacecraft must travel. And assuming the vehicle gets there, the soft landing is the hardest part.

The lander’s primary propulsion system will be the same as the one that Impulse’s spacecraft will use to deploy satellites in Earth orbit. Impulse plans to fly one of these on orbit before the Mars launch, and also demonstrate a hover test on Earth next year.

The companies trying to make deep space a business

Any discussion of private space exploration will include SpaceX and Elon Musk. Ellis doesn’t think the narrative of ‘Relativity vs. SpaceX on race to Mars’ makes much sense, because he sees both efforts as complementary. Indeed, SpaceX isn’t racing to Mars because it can’t find anyone who will pay for it. Instead, Musk has redesigned Starship, its next-generation rocket, to focus on NASA’s return to the Moon (and to launch Starlink satellites.) Musk’s ultimate vision, of course, is a vehicle large enough to support human visits to Mars. That’s a challenge beyond Relativity and Impulse’s plans.

“We don’t need all the in-orbit refueling missions, like what Starship needs, like they need a bazillion refueling missions before they can even launch something [to Mars],” Ellis says. “This is a little bit more traditional lander style, but we’re taking commercial space and more startup-like, agile approaches to development and bringing that to interplanetary transport.”

Mueller was involved when SpaceX hatched a plan to launch a version of its Dragon spacecraft to Mars in 2016. It ultimately foundered when the design of that vehicle changed to depend on parachutes for landing instead of rockets. The lesson is to keep your advanced projects as close to your main technology program, if you want to do it on the cheap.

“We’re focused on the orbital transfer, cause that’s [an] easy-to-address existing market,” Mueller says. “It was actually great that this came along when it did, cause this would improve our skillset. You have a real motivator, it helps us hire, it just builds morale around here cause it’s a really cool mission.”

From a business point of view, a better analogy than SpaceX is Rocket Lab’s campaign of deep space missions. The company, which builds both rockets and spacecraft, sent a orbiter to the Moon earlier this month, and has plans to do the same at Venus and Mars. It’s clear that low-cost transportation into deep space is a growing market, even if all these companies bread and butter will be putting satellites into low-Earth orbit. But Ellis and Mueller are true believers.

“We finally are at the point where we can start to execute on the original vision that we had, of truly making humanity multi-planetary,” Ellis says. “We need a dozen to hundred companies to have this mission of seeing a million people on Mars happen in our lifetime.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Quartz’s Space Business newsletter.