Mars is the destination for the next space race, and unlike the first round in the Cold War, this one will be between private companies, not countries.
With NASA expected to conclude its research on the International Space Station before 2024, U.S. space travel and colonization has been turned over to private companies like SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic for the conquest of Mars.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk kicked off the land rush to Mars when he formally announced on September 26 at the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, that he intends to “Make Humans a Multi-planetary Species” by having SpaceX launch the first leg of its privately funded two-year mission to Mars by 2022. Musk hilariously commented at the conference, “I’d like to die on Mars, just not on impact.”
Musk outlined that SpaceX would soon unveil a powerful reusable rocket system called the Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), which can carry a 100-person working crew to the “Red Planet” to set up permanent extraterrestrial colonies, factories and mines.
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, speaking at an early October conference in Chicago, said his company was joining the land rush, and that he is “convinced the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding a Boeing rocket,” according to Bloomberg.
Boeing unveiled its heavy-lift rocket project, called the Space Launch System, which also aims to develop reusable rocket systems. Many aspects of Boeing’s plan appear similar to SpaceX, but Muilenburg commented that his plan is a more realistic approach because it will rely on at least $60 billion in private sector satellite launches and NASA-funded development prior to a human-crewed venture to Mars in the late 2030s.
NASA has essentially been operating as a joint venture in space travel with the Russians since the July 17, 1975 “rendezvous between the Soyuz and Apollo spacecrafts proved that the Soviet Union and the United States could set aside their differences in the name of advancing manned spaceflight,” according to Stratfor Global Intelligence.
The partnership allowed Washington to curtail drastically its very expansive NASA budgets, which at the height of the Apollo program accounted for 4.2 percent of all federal budget spending. Today, that budget is less than one-half percent of federal spending.
As NASA’s budget declined, the U.S. space agency also struck partnership deals with other nations and the private sector to help finance research efforts. Although the U.S. continued to pay most of the cost of the International Space Station, the U.S. gained benefits, sharing the expenses with others.
Historically, manned space flight has been mostly about basic research, and had few military applications. A few experiments could only be conducted in zero atmosphere, but there is no advantage to putting military special forces in space. Remote satellites are far superior to manned spacecraft for reconnaissance and imaging programs.
But with the U.S. once again becoming a military and policy adversary on the world stage to the Russians and the Chinese, the importance of space as the ultimate high ground in terrestrial warfare is becoming more obvious, according to Stratfor.
The U.S. has always banned Chinese scientists from working with their NASA counterparts because of national security concerns. The International Space Station required all participating nations to hand over technical information and make their hardware freely accessible to anyone involved in the program, a step China has refused to take.
China, with the help of Russia, launched its second space lab into orbit in September as a preparatory step to a permanent space station in the 2020s. Russia has recently announced that it intends to separate their portion of the International Space Station modules in 2024, and then build their own outpost, or partner with the Chinese.
China and Russia are focused on colonization and economic exploitation of the moon. Beijing plans to follow the model of its One Belt, One Road strategy of using economic projects and partnerships to gain political support abroad, particularly in the developing world. Moscow’s space strategy is focused on military projects and the projection of power.
But NASA and the Obama administration are squarely focused on reaching the Red Planet, and will let private sector companies grab Mars as the ultimate resource platform.