SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket lifts off on Dec. 8, 2010, with the company's first Dragon spacecraft. Three hours and 20 minutes later, the capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean, marking a first for a non-governmental entity.
SpaceX is developing the Dragon capsule under a NASA contract to resupply the International Space Station. The company also hopes NASA will use a human-rated version of Dragon to ferry astronauts to and from the orbiting lab, perhaps by 2015 or so.
But SpaceX has bigger dreams. Earlier this year, for example, CEO Elon Musk announced that the company hopes to send an astronaut to Mars within the next 10 to 20 years. That would beat NASA's timeline; the space agency has tentative plans to put boots on the Red Planet by the mid-2030s.
So using Dragon as a payload delivery system to Mars lines up with SpaceX's ambitious long-term plans. Indeed, Musk has noted Dragon's potential to aid exploration missions to other worlds.
"This would possibly be several tons of payload — actually, a single Dragon mission could land with more payload than has been delivered to Mars cumulatively in history, " Musk told MSNBC's Alan Boyle recently.
And as the capabilities of private spaceflight firms like SpaceX improve, relying on them to carry hardware to other planets could make more and more economic sense for scientists like himself, McKay said.
"I want the commercial space sector to drive costs down, " he said. He added, by way of analogy: "When I go on scientific expeditions to the polar regions [of Earth], I don't build a helicopter from scratch."
You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook
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