Yesterday NASA awarded SpaceX and Boeing contracts totaling $6.8B to transport astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) from U.S. soil. NASA says it wants to end the current dependence on Russian rockets for manned missions by 2017 and focus more on sending humans to Mars.
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden said:
… today we are one step closer to launching our astronauts from U.S. soil on American spacecraft and ending the nation’s sole reliance on Russia by 2017. Turning over low-Earth orbit transportation to private industry will also allow NASA to focus on an even more ambitious mission – sending humans to Mars.
This all but ends some of the criticism I have heard that SpaceX would only ever launch cargo to the ISS despite its ambitions.
And, there are plenty of people who are debating whether Boeing (awarded $4.2B) or SpaceX (awarded $2.6B) will do a better job transporting astronauts to and from the ISS.
But, there are more important questions on my mind. Like:
- Has NASA put itself in a position to race SpaceX to Mars or will it collaborate and contract with SpaceX to get there?
- Also, will SpaceX’s rate of innovation and exploration pull ahead of NASA on the way to Mars?
SpaceX was created by Elon Musk because he saw space exploration technology stagnating and he wanted to raise the bar with the “ultimate goal of enabling human life on Mars.”
If NASA doesn’t make progress towards manned missions to Mars SpaceX is likely to step up to the challenge.
Neil deGrasse Tyson is known for saying that private industry has never lead large, expensive, dangerous, projects with unknown risks:
There is truth to Tyson’s words though I am honestly not trying very hard to think of an exception right now.
But, a breakthrough technology could change everything.
I don’t consider DMLS a breakthrough technology, but its application here is impressive!
Is NASA or even other aerospace companies innovating at the same rate?
There is also a ton of data available to the public from all the previous Mars missions. There are likely very few unknown risks for a manned mission to Mars at this point.
If a man like Elon Musk can convince investors that the risks are known and that there is a market for manned missions to Mars then SpaceX will not have trouble forging a path to Mars on its own ahead of NASA.