NASA to Give Elon Musk, SpaceX First Dibs on Mars?
The race to Mars is on! It's not only NASA, the U.S. premiere space agency, who is interested in landing on the red planet, the next considerable human habitat aside from Earth. Next to NASA, China, Russia and Japan are also eyeing the red planet. But with the recent assertion of Elon Musk and his company SpaceX, have they taken over NASA in this particular race?
Businessman, billionaire and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk recently outlined his plan to colonize Mars during the International Aeronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. In his speech, "Making Humans a Multiplanetary Species," Musk discussed the details of his Interplanetary Transport System (ITS), which is said to be capable of bringing humans to Mars.
SpaceX is also set to launch its first unmanned mission to the red planet as early as 2018. And by 2024, Musk plans to send its first capsule with a human crew to Mars with an estimated arrival on the red planet in 2025. If it succeeds, SpaceX will be immortalized in history as the first company who successfully sent humans to Mars. Most people will expect that NASA would like to be the one to bag the title, but it looks like the agency has indeed taken a back seat on this one.
Comparing Musk's timeline to NASA's "Journey to Mars," it is obvious that NASA is not competing with SpaceX. Currently, NASA has no intention of racing with SpaceX, maybe because they don't have the capability yet to bring humans to Mars. Compared to SpaceX, a privately funded commercial space flight company, NASA adheres to government rules and regulations. In terms of funding, the agency is also tied monetarily to the government; thus, the slower decision-making and execution.
If SpaceX plans to send humans to Mars in 2025, NASA's target manned landing on the red planet is set in 2030. "NASA is developing the capabilities needed to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s -- goals outlined in the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2010 and in the U.S. National Space Policy, also issued in 2010," a NASA official said in the Journey to Mars mission overview.
This alone is a giveaway; NASA is opening the gates of Mars to SpaceX. Not only by freeing the private company from its biggest competition in terms of space exploration but by supporting their plans to colonize Mars. Although NASA's role is limited, the agency got Musk's back in his ambition to send the first human to Mars.
"NASA's participation, the way SpaceX characterized it, is it was highly desired, but it was not enabling necessarily," Phil McAlister, NASA's director of commercial spaceflight development said in a statement. "Our participation, we believe, will increase the likelihood that it will be successful, and SpaceX agrees with that, too... But SpaceX could eventually do all this on their own," McAlister added.
Although NASA is taking a back seat when it comes to the race to Mars, if SpaceX mission to Mars succeeds, NASA will also hugely benefit from it. NASA will be given access to the data gathered by SpaceX. The agency can also use the learnings, mistakes and realizations from SpaceX mission to Mars when and apply it at the right time.
Despite NASA's humble move to give SpaceX the first dibs to SpaceX, the agency's careful steps should serve as a role model to private and government-owned agencies. This is a good reminder that the "race" in deep space exploration is not only based on speed but by careful planning, innovative spacecraft and secure human protection throughout the deep space exploration.
The race to Mars or in any planet at that is a risky and difficult task especially now that it involves sending humans to other planets so it should be done with precision instead of haste.
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