NASA is working with private industry to go well beyond simply supplying ferry flights to the International Space Station, but to Mars on the cheap.

Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, is preparing to launch its second test Dragon capsule on 30 November with the intention of docking it at the space station.

In addition to carrying cargo to and from the station, SpaceX plans to upgrade the Dragon to fly people into space and to one day land it on Mars.

"We figured out that for a pretty low cost, a Dragon capsule on a Falcon Heavy (rocket) could go to Mars for hundreds of millions of dollars, not billions," says Pete Worden, director of NASA'S Ames Research Center, speaking at the NewSpace 2011 commerical space conference last weekend.

The mission, informally known as Red Dragon, would follow NASA's upcoming US$2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory, which is due to launch in November and arrive on Mars next August. Its goal is to determine if the red planet is, or ever was, suitable for microbial life.

Red Dragon would take the quest a step farther, with a drill to tap into the planet's buried ice to look for evidence of life.

"One of the most important things you can do is figure out if there was life there," says Worden.

Aside from its science objectives, the mission would demonstrate the feasibility of flying massive amounts of payload to Mars, a supply line that would be crucial to support settlements beyond Earth.

"Ultimately, the thing that is super important in the grand scale of history is 'Are we on the path to becoming a multi-planet species or not?'" says SpaceX founder Elon Musk, who spoke at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics conference in San Diego this week.

"And if we're not, that's not a very bright future. We'll simply be hanging out on Earth until some eventual calamity claims us."