Will NASA or private industry be the first to land humans on Mars and attempt to colonize the red planet?
This is an important question due to the growing competition from CEOs of commercial space startups, whose entrepreneurial fortitude has captured the attention of the entire aerospace industry at the dawn of a new century.
Here’s one great example: CEO Elon Musk of SpaceX recently announced that he plans to make history by landing the first humans on Mars, thus beating the USA’s esteemed space agency, NASA. That is, assuming Musk’s projections are correct and SpaceX is successful.
Musk’s bold pronouncement is far from assured in the new commercial space race.
However, Musk and Space X have had their share of success in contracting with NASA to send supplies to the International Space Station.
“I think, if things go according to plan, we should be able to launch people probably in 2024, with arrival in 2025,” Musk recently said of his manned mission to Mars, according to Space Flight Now.
This would be a generational milestone for Musk and SpaceX, leaving NASA to lead from behind. Musk also said the following about the SpaceX mission to Mars: “It’s not being a single planet species and moving planets, it’s about being a multi-planet species and have life extend beyond the solar system and ultimately to other star systems.”
- “The basic game plan is we’re going to send a mission to Mars with every Mars opportunity from 2018 onwards,”
- “They occur approximately every 26 months. We’re establishing cargo flights to Mars that people can count on for cargo”
- “That’s what’s necessary to create a self-sustaining, or a growing, city on Mars.”
To his skeptics, Musk said, “When I cite a schedule, it’s actually a schedule I think is true. It’s not some fake schedule I don’t think is true. I may be delusional. That is entirely possible, and maybe it’s happened from time to time, but it’s never some knowingly fake deadline ever.”
NASA Needs Liftoff
Therefore, if NASA aspires to win the new 21st century space race to put astronauts on Mars than Congress and the President must heed the words of John F. Kennedy (JFK), who said during his famous “Moon Speech” in 1962:
“It’s time to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear.” — President John F. Kennedy
NASA is in need of a big budget boost for deep space exploration and discovery to benefit all mankind, which includes fast-tracking its planned manned mission to Mars now scheduled for the 2030s. Currently, NASA’s Curiosity Rover (pictured below) is surveying the Martian landscape and looking for signs of liquid water.
NASA needs to reassess the launch schedule because of ambitious and successful startups like Space X which want to send humans to Mars first — not to mention other new space competitors, such as Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin led by Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon who also owns The Washington Post).
Let’s also not forget about the industry titans of aerospace, such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, to name only a few. All of the aforementioned companies likewise aspire to corner the evolving market of commercial space travel and deep space exploration — including through contracts with NASA.
Mars has always captured the attention and imagination of mankind. This is perhaps more true now than ever, especially as Hollywood glorifies futuristic manned missions to Mars by NASA — such as in the blockbuster feature film “The Martian” (based on the science fiction novel of the same name by Andy Weir).
But despite the new private sector competition, let’s recall that the American space agency is a crown jewel of public sector innovation and a global role model for groundbreaking scientific research and technology.
Therefore, NASA has the most experience to beat Musk to landing humans on Mars. However, the space agency’s funding for this major mission likely needs a big boost in the wake of Musk’s announcement.
But if NASA’s budget for the Mars mission isn’t supersized soon, then how can the space agency maximize its full potential?
How can NASA put astronauts on the red planet before its private sector rivals and global competitors, like Europe, Russia and China, without more funding?
NASA serves as a reminder to a wary world of what’s possible when the United States Government harnesses the space agency’s full potential, as evidenced by a rich history of landmark achievements.
Hubble is able to see back to the beginning of the universe, soon after the so-called “Big Bang“. Meanwhile, Kepler continues to discover hundreds of new Earth-like planets orbiting stars similar to our sun — albeit millions of light years away (one light year = about 9 trillion kilometers or approximately 6 trillion miles).
Some of these so-called exoplanets closely resemble Earth with rocky surfaces, atmospheres and the potential for water — or oceans of liquid nitrogen, for example. These exoplanets are located in the habitable “Goldilocks Zone” and may in fact harbor life, at the microbial level or otherwise.
The more Kepler examines the cosmos, the more exoplanets it finds with solar systems similar to our own.
NASA has not only proven instrumental in boldly going “where no man has gone before” but also in applying innovative approaches in space that yield practical technology solutions to problems on Earth.
- NASA Spinoff PSA with Actor Seth Green (one minute video).
When it comes to a rich return on investment (ROI), NASA provides a technology windfall to multiple industries via its Earth Science missions. NASA’s amazing discoveries in space provide important tangible benefits back home, which should not be overlooked.
Yet when it comes to landing astronauts on Mars, NASA now has serious competition. Musk of SpaceX recently reiterated his cosmic goal:
“That’s the game plan — approximately 2024 to launch the first of the Mars colonial transport systems with people.” – Elon Musk
Envy of the World?
In its heyday, the U.S. space program was the envy of the world and beat the former Soviet Union in a “Cold War” space race to land the first man on the moon (although the Soviets did blast the first cosmonaut into space). But what about NASA today?
Most Americans would likely agree that’s it’s simply unwise to rely on Russia to hitch a ride to the International Space Station (ISS) because of the dissolution of our own space shuttle program.
That’s why it’s imperative that NASA be self-sufficient and return to its glory days of yesteryear. And while some private sector companies are moving closer to commercializing space travel, it’s NASA that ultimately has the most expertise, experience and resources to make historic scientific discoveries which benefit all mankind.
Therefore, it’s unfortunate that the NASA Mars Mission has arguably been underfunded due to the ongoing climate of budget austerity in Washington and a lack of vision by some politicians. This is nonsensical because if any federal agency deserves a major budget increase based on science and technology ROI then it is most certainly NASA.
JFK Challenges USA
Further, one can’t put a price on inspiring the nation through space exploration, like President John F. Kennedy did in the early 1960s. President Kennedy massively increased NASA’s budget because he had the vision to understand the critical importance of America leading the world in space exploration, research and technology.
According to Ten Presidents and NASA, “On May 25, 1961, Kennedy addressed a joint session of Congress to announce his decision to go to the moon. He backed up this decision with remarkable financial commitments. Under JFK, NASA’s budget was boosted by 89 percent one year, and then by another 101 percent the following year.”
As JFK said during his famous “moon speech” in September 1962 (video):
“I regard the decision to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency.” — JFK
Today’s lawmakers in Washington should take a cue from JFK and supersize NASA’s budget ASAP for the manned Mars mission and push up the launch schedule to compete with Musk and SpaceX (rather than acquiesce to them). This will not only benefit the USA, but the entire world.
On the other hand, visionary CEOs of space startups, like Elon Musk, could make history on Mars. This might relegate NASA to the dustbin of history, at least in terms of global public perception. And that would truly be a mission fail.
What do YOU think?
David B. Grinberg is a former Featured Blogger for GovLoop. He’s also a space enthusiast and amateur astronomer — in addition to being a federal employee who has worked in the White House, Congress and OMB during his 20-year career in Government. You can also find David on Twitter, Medium, beBee and connect on LinkedIn.
NOTE: All views and opinions are those of the author only and not official statements or endorsements of any public sector employer, private sector employer, organization or political entity.