Travel to Mars, Cheap: Efforts Underway to Make The Red Planet Budget-Friendly

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An American rocket company is partnering with NASA to make missions to Mars an easy-on-the-wallet endeavor, a public sign of the enterprising private sector that was used to justify the termination of the government-backed space program.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (often known as SpaceX) plans to build a rocket known as the “Falcon Heavy” which current calculations project can carry a capsule to the red planet for a mere “hundreds of millions of dollars, not billions,” according to Pete Worden, the director of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. Worden, who, as quoted by Discovery, spoke at the NewSpace 2011 conference this past weekend, said that the SpaceX craft would focus on examining whether life could exist on Mars, but the mission could have larger implications for the viability of human settlements.

(PHOTOS: NASA’s Newest Mars Rover, ‘Curiosity’)

“Ultimately, the thing that is super important in the grand scale of history is—are we on a path to becoming a multi-planet species or not? If we’re not, that’s not a very bright future. We’ll just be hanging out on Earth until some eventual calamity claims us,” SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics conference in San Diego earlier this week, according to PC Mag.

NASA will be launching a $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory in November, which is planned to land next August. Following this launch, the SpaceX program will get underway, utilizing the Falcon Heavy rocket and a Dragon capsule as a relatively inexpensive ferry to the red planet.

The SpaceX mission is casually known as Red Dragon, and would reportedly carry a drill to examine the ice under the surface of Mars for signs of life.

Still, despite the relatively cheap cost of a Falcon Heavy-propelled Mars mission, Musk estimated that sustainable transportation would not be economically feasible immediately: the current cost-per-pound for the rocket is approximately $1,000, but, he said at the AIAA conference, regular flights would require a cost of about $50 per pound.

SpaceX was founded in 2002 and has already developed the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 rockets. The Dragon capsule, which is capable of holding up to seven passengers, became the first craft to ever be launched into orbit and recovered by a private company when SpaceX held a successful maiden voyage on December 8, 2010.

(MORE: Mars’ Frozen Ocean of Carbon Dioxide)

Everett Rosenfeld is a TIME contributor. Find him on Twitter at @Ev_Rosenfeld. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.