NASA guesses SpaceX’s Dragon-Mars mission will cost $300 million

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At a meeting of NASA’s Advisory Council yesterday a NASA official estimated that SpaceX will probably spend about $300 million on its Dragon mission to Mars.

Asked by the committee how much SpaceX was spending, Reuter indicated that the company’s investment was 10 times that of NASA. “They did talk to us about a 10-to-1 arrangement in terms of cost: theirs 10, ours 1,” he said. “I think that’s in the ballpark.” Given NASA’s investment, that implies SpaceX is spending around $300 million on Red Dragon.

SpaceX has not disclosed its estimated cost of the mission, or how it will pay for it. “I have no knowledge” of how the company is financing the mission, Reuter said when asked by the committee.

I suspect that the guess is significantly wrong. NASA is providing $32 million. SpaceX plans to charge customers $90 million for a single Falcon Heavy launch, which means its cost for that launch is likely half that, say $45 million. That adds up to $77 million. The cost for a Dragon capsule is not even close to $223 million, which is what remains if NASA’s guess is right, which based on this rough estimate I seriously doubt. I would bet that a single Dragon probably costs far less than $20 million. Remember, they are nothing more than basic manned capsules, and SpaceX is building enough of them to almost have an assembly line going.

So, let’s round up and say that the cost for the mission is really about $100 million (including NASA’s contribution). Other costs, such as the staff to run the mission for at least a year, will increase this cost, but not enough to bring the total to NASA’s guess of $300 million. I suspect that SpaceX will not spend anything close to $100 million of its own money for this Dragon mission to Mars.

All in all, this amount of investment seems reasonable, based on the scale of costs in the launch industry. And SpaceX’s willingness to invest some of its own money for this mission is probably wise. In publicity alone it is priceless.


  • DREngel

    I think he will land one on the moon first

  • Kirk

    I thought that the $90 million Falcon Heavy is for up to 8.0 M/T to GTO, which allows recovery of all three boosters (2 RTLS + 1 ASDS), and that a Red Dragon mission would use a FH in its fully expendable mode.

  • Kirk: You might be right, but even so, the additional cost of losing all three first stages will not bring the cost up that much more. However, if they need to launch two Falcon Heavies to provide the additional fuel and upper stage to send Dragon to Mars, then, yes, that could explain the $300 million estimate.

    However, a Dragon capsule does not weigh 50 tons. I suspect that there should be plenty of fuel available in the upper stage to send the capsule to Mars.

  • We wouldn’t be having this conversation ten years ago.

  • Nick P


    Is that you Paul?

  • J Fincannon

    I don’t think they would have costed things the way you outlined. NASA would use cost models which are usually based on historical data. Then there are knobs for schedule and include probability distributions.

  • J Fincannon: I agree. NASA here based its guess on its past cost models. Those models however have little to do with how SpaceX and Elon Musk calculate costs, which I expect is more along the lines of how I did it. Which is also why I think NASA’s guess is high.

  • ken anthony

    SpaceX website says FH can put 13600 kg to mars orbit and that is before F9 was upgraded from 13 to 20+ tons. Dragon 2 has dry mass of 6400 kg w/ payload of 6000 kg.

    Therefor a single launch without refueling could put a fully loaded Dragon in mars orbit. The price for this (not cost which is lower) was stated at $150m years ago and should be about the same today.

  • Edward

    There is certainly some amount of development cost on SpaceX’s part. The cost estimate may include previous expenditures spent to figure out what it would take to put a Red Dragon on Mars. One method that the article mentions is “supersonic retropropulsion,” and some controls will have to be developed to perform this, and something will have to record and report on the performance and results. SpaceX would be smart to send and test additional hardware and processes that would be needed to get people there, depending upon weight limitations.

    As someone pointed out, a few months back, SETI had a talk two years ago on the topic, suggesting that SpaceX and NASA’s Ames Research Center have been pondering this concept for a few years: (1 hour)

    The article mentions that the Red Dragon is going to be reduced in weight, or as phrased: “Much of the capsule’s interior will be stripped out, including displays and environmental controls not needed for the mission. The unpressurized trunk section attached to the capsule will have ‘more substantial’ modifications, he said, primarily in the form of solar array placement and thermal controls.”

    SpaceX may be hoping to spend less than $300 million, but they may be willing to go that high by the time all is designed and flown (said and done?).

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