Only NASA Can Lead Us to Mars; Outsourcing Space Exploration to Private Industry Won't Work

Article excerpt


While the Mars rover Curiosity is discovering the building blocks of life on the red planet, many are equally excited about another development: commercial companies have finally discovered profit in space.

This is no small feat, considering the enormous risk and technical hurdles. With years of experience building government-designed rockets and communications satellites, private companies took the first cautious steps by funding research labs that hitched rides on the NASA Space Shuttle. In fact, I was privileged to be the very first private astronaut working on techniques to manufacture new medicines in space on three shuttle flights in 1984-85. Now, companies such as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are building their own rockets and making profits by launching satellites and sending supplies to the International Space Station. They're even selling tickets for joyrides into the cosmos - something we've dreamed of since before Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.

Excited by their progress, many people have suggested that we outsource even bolder space exploration to these companies. Why not entrust the audacious human Mars-landing mission to private companies as well, leaving private industry to fund and build the rockets, capsule and other major systems? SpaceX founder Elon Musk has already boasted of plans to build a new rocket that could send citizen-colonists to Mars several years ahead of NASA's schedule, and for only $500,000 per ticket. That's dirt cheap.

The idea is attractive, considering today's budget crunch, even if commercial plans for a Mars mission are hypothetical at best. As much as I support the private space industry, though, experience and common sense tell me that a commercial landing of humans on Mars won't ever get off the ground - not unless NASA goes there first.

Businesses are slaves to short-term balance sheets, and private space-industry investors and shareholders are notoriously risk-averse. Even wealthy entrepreneurs won't throw their money away. They'll back straightforward missions using well-tested technologies and demand a profit within a reasonable amount of time with acceptable risk. Exploration, however, is by its nature very risky. Only a nation can marshal the long-term funding and pioneering vision needed to boldly go where no one has gone before.

In fact, nearly every great exploration in history has been government-funded or guaranteed, from Magellan's trip around the globe to the Lewis and Clark expedition across the American continent. …