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This year is shaping up to be a major turning point for SpaceX as it challenges the space-launch establishment on additional fronts and prepares to unveil a new spacecraft for sending people to Mars.
Founded by Elon Musk of Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) fame, the privately held space company is seeking to demonstrate a new way to reduce expenses with the launch Saturday of its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule to the International Space Station (ISS).
The capsule will carry food, scientific experiments and spare parts. Unlike earlier missions, SpaceX will try to land the Falcon 9’s first stage on a platform in the Atlantic Ocean.
If the company is successful with its guided-rocket landing experiment, it would be a big step toward cutting costs, as expensive rockets could be reused in future launches.
SpaceX has a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to send 12 unmanned cargo missions to the ISS, and the space agency is expected to award a new round of contracts this spring.
In addition to SpaceX, the other companies competing for the work include Orbital Sciences (NYSE:ORB), Boeing (NYSE:BA) and Sierra Nevada.
On the manned mission front, NASA’s space taxi contracts with Boeing and SpaceX can move ahead unchallenged this year after the Government Accountability Office rejected a protest Monday from Sierra Nevada.
The company had contested NASA’s choice in Boeing, with the privately held upstart saying its own vehicle could be launched more cheaply.
But the GAO said that despite Boeing’s higher mission costs, the aerospace giant was ahead of Sierra Nevada’s efforts “in terms of technical approach, management approach and past performance.”
In September, NASA awarded Boeing a maximum of $4.2 billion to transport astronauts to the ISS, and SpaceX will get up to $2.6 billion.
SpaceX is also expanding its presence in the multibillion-dollar military segment. On Wednesday, the Air Force said it will likely approve SpaceX to bid on Pentagon satellite launches by the middle of the year.
Once that happens, SpaceX will compete against Boeing and Lockheed Martin‘s (NYSE:LMT) joint venture, United Launch Alliance.
The development comes after Musk sued the Air Force last year over its launch contracts, accusing it of creating an unfair bidding process that essentially granted ULA a monopoly.
While he pushes to disrupt the space-launch market, Musk has loftier goals than traveling in Earth’s lower orbit.
He wants to colonize Mars.
His first goal is to put 100 metric tons of material on the planet to build infrastructure for the more than 80,000 people he hopes to send there by 2040.
The Mars transporter won’t be like anything SpaceX has produced. Musk said in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session Tuesday that the system will feature completely new architecture, which he hopes to display later this year.
Meanwhile, Boeing is working on its own mission to Mars. The company is building a powerful Space Launch System rocket to blast astronauts to our neighboring planet.
And last month, Boeing tested its Orion capsule, which would take humans to Mars, in an unmanned flight. The first manned test is slated for the early 2020s.
In addition to technological innovation, Musk plans to add some style to extravehicular activity too. If Tesla’s ability to change the perception of electric cars from frumpy to sleek is any indication, Musk may bring sexy back to space.
“Our space suit design is finally coming together and will also be unveiled later this year,” Musk said on Reddit. “We are putting a lot of effort into design aesthetics, not just utility. It needs to both look like a 21st-century space suit and work well.”
Follow Gillian Rich on Twitter: @IBD_GRich.