Red Dragon is currently in the news again. Except for its enormous amount of ambition and its relatively large risk of failure (e.g. Falcon Heavy RUD, a SuperDraco failure on Mars, mixing imperial and metrical units etc.), it seems to be relatively straightforward:

  1. Stuff Dragon II with enough fuel for re-entry and landing
  2. Put onto Falcon Heavy
  3. Aim and shoot

The "aim" part is even supported by NASA free of cost. However, the whole Mission still will cost around 320Million \$. A single Dragon II launch is proposed for 140Million\$ (still quite expensive) - including SpaceX margin. That still leaves 180Million$ for the "Mars part".

When SpaceX is going to launch that mission in 2018 and support it until 2020 (next launch), that makes 40Million $ annual budget, or roughly 200 exceptionally qualified engineers. Since SpaceX probably does not pay that many people that well for a single mission:

Where does all that money go?

  • $\begingroup$ Dragon 2 and FH are both still in development. SpaceX has around 5000 employees. 5% of the staff working in Red Dragon related activities doesn't seem out of line. $\endgroup$ Jul 28, 2016 at 20:40
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    $\begingroup$ I wouldn't worry about the exact numbers just yet anyway. The FH was supposed to launch in 2014, 2015, September 2016, and now December 2016. Easy to forget that 2018 is a "no earlier than" date. $\endgroup$
    – M.A.H.
    Jul 29, 2016 at 11:59
  • $\begingroup$ If they successfully land,it would make the producers of Delta Heavy feel really bad because they use 300 millions to put a satellite in GTO. At this case 300 millions will be spent for a bigger rocket and a successful landing of a human rated spacecraft at Mars. A lot more better job. $\endgroup$
    – Mark777
    Jul 30, 2016 at 23:46

2 Answers 2


The first difference is the Red Dragon will use a Falcon Heavy, which runs between \$30-\$80 million more than the Falcon 9. Note that the higher end of this is more likely reality, the Falcon Heavy is expected to be fully expended to get the Red Dragon to Mars, giving it the higher price tag. That alone accounts for almost half of the $180 million difference you mentioned.

Secondly, they are likely going to have some kind of experiment they run on Mars, which will no doubt cost something. It'd be a waste to get the system there without anything to do with it other than land it. I suspect this will be a decent part of the cost, and in fact might absorb any money left over from other areas.

Next they have to figure out the communication problem, which is much more complex than in Earth Orbit, although still quite doable. I suspect this will be a \$10-\$20 million effort.

Then they have to meet Planetary Protection concerns, which no doubt will add cost. This probably isn't a huge cost, but a few million.

There will no doubt be much modeling, simulation development, and other such exercises to ensure that the Dragon will land, software re-writes, etc. No doubt this will be at least $20 million, quite possibly more.

Finally, they have to pay to operate the spacecraft for at least 8 months, possibly as long as a year or longer, depending on how long it lasts on Mars. Again, this won't be a huge cost, I suspect NASA is allowing the use of the DSN to make this happen, but it is still a cost, at least to keep the operators required to make sure the spacecraft is working in order, maybe a few million.

All of that adds up quite a bit. It wouldn't surprise me at all to see that it ends up costing quite a bit more than a standard Dragon launch to the ISS.


Launch vehicle and lander are estimated to be between 150 and 190 million.

The cost of operation will be minimal because once the spacecraft is on it's way to Mars very little intervention is required during the trip.

As for payload, SpaceX has been tight lipped but I expect a number of people will be excited to hitch a free ride to Mars, so I don't see that being a major cost driver.

I suspect the $300 million number includes some of the developmental costs for the Dragon II, such as being able to do a power landing instead of simply splashing down.


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