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SpaceX test-fires new Raptor rocket engine that could take humans to Mars

Elon Musk has just posted photos of SpaceX’s new Raptor engine undergoing its first successful test fire. The Raptor engine is intended to take humans to Mars. It’s a cryogenic methane rocket that uses LOX (liquid oxygen) and liquid methane for fuel, rather than the liquid kerosene (RP-1) + LOX fuel mixture of its existing Merlin engine. Musk is targeting a specific impulse of 382 seconds with 3 MN worth of thrust. The Space Shuttle Main Engine, which also powers the upcoming Space Launch System, has a higher specific impulse (482), but lower vacuum thrust.

This test comes on the eve of something big: On Tuesday, Musk will deliver a much-anticipated speech at the International Astronautical Conference in Mexico that is expected to cover his plans for colonizing Mars and beyond. He’ll need quite a bit of support to do it. NASA and SpaceX are sometimes presented as competitors or at least offering competing visions for the future, with SpaceX often favorably positioned as the private alternative to expensive, government-centric spaceflight.

There’s truth to these viewpoints, but they’re often simplistic. NASA’s support and funding have been instrumental to SpaceX’s success. Billions of dollars in government contracts have flowed into SpaceX’s coffers, but the expense of going to Mars dwarfs the business SpaceX has won for commercial crew or resupply missions to the ISS.

Whether anyone in the federal government will want to pony up money for a true Mars shot is another question entirely. Congress has historically viewed NASA as more of a jobs program than an agency devoted to spaceflight and exploration. The bills authorizing the construction of the SLS (Space Launch System) mandated it re-use existing technology from the Shuttle program, while requiring NASA to buy specific hardware from particular companies. Historically, NASA suffers from another problem: Each new President treats NASA’s established roadmaps and long-term technology goals as something they should personally fiddle with. This tends to cause further mission delays and problems as NASA scrambles every 4-8 years to adjust its trajectory to agree with whatever the dominant party in the White House wants to accomplish.

Musk may be a billionaire, but he’s not going to self-fund a Mars strategy, which means he’ll need support from both NASA and the White House. With two Falcon 9 rockets lost in just over a year, that support may be a bit slower to arrive than he’d prefer. With major changes to NASA’s plans likely to arrive in the next few months, the agency may not be willing to commit to major funding for what Musk unveils tomorrow. That said, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation has passed a bill that specifically allocates funds to NASA for the long-term development of a manned Mars mission over the next 25 years. There’s hope.

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