In a recent development, NASA disclosed its decision to deploy two scientific spacecraft to Mars aboard the first Blue Origin New Glenn rocket in August 2024, under a contract valued at $20 million. This comes as a shift from the initial plan, where Elon Musk’s SpaceX was slated to carry the NASA payload on a Falcon Heavy rocket in October of this year, alongside NASA’s Psyche mission bound for an asteroid.
The alteration in the launch arrangement occurred as a result of concerns that the Falcon Heavy would not place the additional crafts on the proper trajectory for insertion into Mars’ orbit. This adjustment in the timeline follows a recent setback for Musk, as his Starship rocket—intended for future moon and Mars missions—experienced a failure in its second launch attempt.
The upcoming mission, known as the Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorer (ESCAPADE), involves two identical spacecraft designed to investigate the effects of solar winds on Mars’ magnetosphere. These spacecraft will be launched using the untested Blue Origin New Glenn rocket, marking the first instance of NASA contracting a private space company for a Mars mission, aligning with NASA’s broader strategy to reduce costs by engaging private contractors.
NASA officials explained, “By using a lower level of mission assurance and commercial best practices for launching rockets, these highly flexible contracts help broaden access to space through lower launch costs.” The ESCAPADE mission, classified as a ‘class D’ mission with low-to-medium national significance and low cost, has a budget of $79 million.
Acknowledging the risk associated with using the unproven New Glenn rocket, Bradley Smith, director of NASA’s Launch Services Office, stated, “We’re willing to take a little bit of risk with a price tag and a mission assurance model that reflects that risk.” The launch is scheduled for August 2024, and while Blue Origin’s New Glenn has faced delays, NASA remains optimistic about the timeline.
It is noteworthy that this development is the latest chapter in the ongoing space race between Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, who secured separate multibillion-dollar contracts with NASA for lunar exploration earlier this year. The ESCAPADE mission aims to contribute to NASA’s exploration of Mars, a tradition that has historically utilized NASA’s own rockets, making Blue Origin the first private company to join this endeavor.
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