The race to the red planet: How NASA, SpaceX are working to get to Mars

By Tyler Losier, AccuWeather staff writer

To many, the concept of a fully populated Mars colony may seem straight out of a science-fiction novel. But to Elon Musk, colonizing the red planet isn’t just some futuristic pipe dream, it’s the chief ambition of his company, and he plans to do it sooner than a lot of people think.

According to to their website, Space Exploration Technology Corporation, or SpaceX, was started by Musk in 2002 with the goal of revolutionizing space travel.

The South African-born PayPal founder invested $100 million of his own money to get the company off the ground, and over the course of the last 15 years, SpaceX has made unprecedented progress in their quest to make humanity a multi-planetary species.

SpaceX Rocket

In this photo provided by NASA, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with the Dragon spacecraft onboard, launches from pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla, Saturday, June 3, 2017. SpaceX launched its first recycled cargo ship to the International Space Station on Saturday, yet another milestone in its bid to drive down flight costs. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)

Between owning the first commercial space company to ever resupply the International Space Station (ISS) and creating the only reusable rocket booster in existence, making history is now somewhat of a routine for Musk, but he hasn’t done it alone.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has been with him every step of the way, providing both funding and launch support crucial to SpaceX’s success.

The relationship isn’t simply one-sided, either. Thanks to two key pieces of legislation, The Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 and The Commercial Space Launch Act Amendment of 2004, NASA and SpaceX have been able to form a symbiotic relationship to help each other overcome the numerous hurdles involved in traveling to space.

“We all know and love NASA, and their achievements are legendary, but it’s a federal agency that inevitably has to abide by certain laws,” said Dale Ketcham, the chief of Strategic Alliances for Space Florida. “And innovation is not a term you associate with the federal government.”

By the time the Apollo program ended in 1972, the excitement of the space race had already subsided and NASA saw their share of the federal budget slowly begin to shrink with every passing year.

Once the Space Shuttle program came to a close in 2011, NASA no longer had a means of achieving low Earth orbit, forcing them to look to the private sector to help subsidize launches and keep their ambitions on track.

“It seemed blindingly obvious that getting into low Earth orbit didn’t need to be a government exercise anymore because we had been doing it for 50 years, and the Russians had been doing it even longer than that,” said Ketcham. “It was something that could be turned over to the private sector, which invariably can do almost anything faster and cheaper than the government.”

Enter SpaceX. After successfully docking their Dragon Capsule to the ISS in mid-2012, NASA awarded SpaceX a $1.6-billion, 12-trip contract to resupply the installation on a regular basis. While this funding was undoubtedly crucial to the survival of SpaceX, the deal was also beneficial to NASA as well.

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“SpaceX helped NASA in the very beginning by pushing for fixed-price contracts to enable the federal government to change how it does business,” Ketcham said. “[This let NASA] pay for milestones of achievement, as opposed to the traditional cost-plus model, which helped keep costs down and enabled the private sector to assume substantially greater risk and invest their own capital."

"So, NASA was a big beneficiary of the change in that paradigm. Concurrently, SpaceX was successful in landing NASA contracts that infused federal money into their initiative, so it was a win-win for both parties.”

Currently, SpaceX is involved in numerous contracts with both private companies and the federal government. Musk predicts that he will be able to offer a $200,000 ticket to Mars in roughly 10 years. However, as of now, SpaceX’s missions mainly consist of cargo resupplies and satellite launches.

NASA has released their own plan to get to the red planet as well. However, their timetable is significantly less ambitious than Musk’s.

The agency’s three-phase initiative hopes to have the first humans orbiting Mars sometime in the early 2030s. Unlike Musk, NASA's plan does not include any colonization efforts as of now.

NASA Mars Plan

NASA's plan to get to Mars (NASA)

So, who is going to reach Mars first? Will it be Elon Musk and the private sector, NASA and the federal government, or perhaps some mix of the two?

“The more we learn, the more daunting we realize [getting to Mars] is going to be,” Ketcham said. “I think there’s a common recognition that the cost to overcome technological hurdles, and execute once that technology is captured, is going to be significantly more than any one or two or three entities is going to be able to bear independent of the rest of humanity.”

But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. Like Musk, Ketcham feels that leaving our planet is going to be an inevitability if we want humanity to survive.

“This planet wasn’t here forever, and it ain’t going to be here forever,” he said.

“Whether the sun gets too big in a couple billion years, the Earth’s molten core cools and we lose our magnetic sphere, or human beings manage to do what they’re very capable of doing, wiping us out on this planet, it would be a good idea to colonize elsewhere.”

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