Elon Musk wants SpaceX to launch unmanned Mars mission by 2018

Earlier this week, SpaceX announced that it wants to send an unmanned spacecraft off to Mars by 2018, more than a decade before NASA’s target for sending astronauts off to the Red Planet.

Quotes from SpaceX CEO Elon Musk suggest that the company will be working closely with NASA, a classic case of strange bedfellows working together toward a common goal. Former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver said that the SpaceX-NASA team-up, which unites a private company with a government agency, resembles a government-to-government agreement, and bodes well for Musk’s plans for launching a Mars mission just two years from now.

“It is breaking new ground, and I think it’s a good sign that NASA is even a partner,” said Garver in a Washington Post interview. “It shows there are people at NASA who are as excited about this as a lot of us are.”

NASA’s role in the SpaceX mission will mainly focus on technical support, according to a blog post from the agency’s deputy administrator, Dava Newman. SpaceX, on its part, is expected to provide “valuable” entry, descent, and landing data to NASA for its own plans to launch a Mars mission.

“As the saying goes, ‘spaceflight is hard,’” wrote Newman. “Sending astronauts to Mars, which will be one of the greatest feats of human innovation in the history of civilization, carries with it many, many puzzles to piece together. That’s why we at NASA have made it a priority to reach out to partners in boardrooms, classrooms, laboratories, space agencies and even garages across our country and around the world.”

Meanwhile, Musk offered some information on the potential Mars mission, confirming that the capsule to be used is called the Red Dragon. He stressed that SpaceX does not have any plans to send human crews beyond the moon, as the Red Dragon is only as large as an SUV. As Musk quipped on Twitter, such close confines “wouldn’t be fun for longer journeys.”