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Surprising Science

The New Space Race is On, and the Odds are Good

Two powerful organizations have dedicated themselves to getting to Mars. One is SpaceX, the other is the US government. Will they both get there?

In late September Elon Musk announced an ambitious plan to not only colonize mars, but to the make the trip cost less than a new house. Over 100,000 people watched him make the announcement live and the idea continues to receive a great deal of media coverage. 

Less noticed, however, was the introduction of a bill to the U.S. Senate that would require NASA to put a man on Mars within 25 years. The bill would allocate nearly twenty billion dollars for the 2017 fiscal year to jump start programs required to reach the red planet. Including funding for the Orion crew vehicle with a goal of using it for manned missions by 2021. 

Elon Musk is trying to get humans to mars permanently, citing Mars as the only viable option in our solar system for colonization. While the Senate’s bill is concerned only with getting to Mars and back; while not ruling out further activity. Merely sending people to Mars and returning them would constitute one of the greatest feats of engineering in human history, let alone moving a million people there. 

Are the plans viable? How do they compare?

At the time of writing, the Senate’s bill is still in committee. While it enjoys bipartisan support there is no assurance of its passage during the next six or so weeks of the current congress. Even supporters of the the bill have criticized it for its cuts to scientific studies and education. The overall cost of the of the bill could be an issue for it as well. The desire to save money has reduced the scope of the space program before, most recently with the fate of the Constellation program.

Rather importantly for this mission the technology to merely get to Mars and back again is quite possible, they are just remarkably expensive. Portions of the Orion craft and the Space Launch System have already been constructed and tested successfully. While there is doubt on the ability to achieve the 2021 launch date, there is little doubt that it will be launched.

Elon Musk, while not directly hampered by the legislative process, has issues with his plan as well. Currently the estimated cost of getting a person to Mars is $10,000,000,000, cutting that down to $200,000 per person is a rather large reduction in price, one that may prove difficult to achieve.

A key question for Musk is funding. The project would be unlikely to generate much profit for at least a decade, a subject of great concern for a for profit enterprise. Much of the funding for SpaceX comes from NASA contracts. While they continue to diversify, their past ability to finance R&D has been dependent on economic conditions and the needs of the space agency. 

SpaceX does have experience in reducing costs and developing reusable spacecraft; as a company trying to turn a profit is liable to do. Musk has also expressed the idea that the program could be a public private partnership. Reducing the need for a focus on profitability. 

One thing is certain, a great deal of wealth and influence is getting behind the idea of making mankind an interplanetary species. The Boeing Corporation has also expressed a desire to get to Mars in the last week, adding another horse to the race. It seems that we are going to Mars. How we get there, and when, is another question entirely. One that public and private interests both wish to answer.


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