infinity and beyond

Obama’s dream of Mars is a corporate space race


SpaceX CEO Elon Musk isn’t the only guy excitedly making plans for humans to live on Mars. On Tuesday, President Obama penned an op-ed for CNN about America’s plan to inhabit the red planet by the 2030s. NASA chief Charles Bolden echoed him in a White House blog post about NASA’s plan for “making human settlement of space a reality.” Bolden and Obama want to move humankind beyond what NASA calls the “Earth Dependent” stage.

The crux of their announcement is a public-private partnership between NASA and six companies building prototypes for deep-space habitats. Jason Crusan, NASA’s director of Advanced Exploration Systems, explained the new partnership’s goal: “We are now adding focus and specifics on the deep space habitats where humans will live and work independently for months or years at a time, without cargo supply deliveries from Earth,” he said.

In an August blogpost, NASA announced which companies will develop the prototypes:

  • Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas
  • Boeing of Pasadena, Texas
  • Lockheed Martin of Denver
  • Orbital ATK of Dulles, Virginia
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Space Systems of Louisville, Colorado
  • NanoRacks of Webster, Texas

NASA plans to kick in $65 million for the building of the interplanetary work/live spaces, with the partners paying “at least” 30% of the costs.

Not on the list: SpaceX. On the list, its now rival, Boeing. Both companies have standing collaborative projects with NASA, most recently as part of the Commercial Crew Program, which sends astronauts to the International Space Station. But Boeing and SpaceX recently made headlines for their “space race” to be the first company to land humans on Mars.

A week after SpaceX’s Elon Musk fleshed out plans to send humans to Mars as soon as the late 2020s, Boeing’s CEO said he was “convinced that the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding on a Boeing rocket.” He’s referring to the Space Launch System, a rocket that Boeing engineered with NASA designed to go “farther than we’ve ever gone before in manned spacecraft.”

For his part, Musk has said his company’s role in the plan to colonize Mars is simply getting people to the red planet itself. “The goal of SpaceX really is to build the transport system,” Musk said. “It’s like building the Union Pacific railroad.” Though SpaceX wasn’t named as a partner in Obama’s announcement, SpaceX still sees itself as a part of the overall project to reach Mars. In a statement to Fusion, SpaceX’s spokesperson said:

“SpaceX was founded with the ultimate goal of helping make humans a multi-planetary species. As Elon said at his recent talk, it will take a combination of public and private efforts to build a self-sustaining city on Mars. It’s exciting to see President Obama advocate for the next frontier in human space flight, and we look forward to participating in the journey.”

Whether Boeing or SpaceX build the first rockets to Mars, the partnerships between public and private sectors seems like a step towards the private sector extending its domain into space itself. The first human-filled rocket to get to Mars won’t just have the American flag on it (assuming we get there first), it’ll have a corporate logo. Boeing’s CEO said he eventually sees space travel “blossoming over the next couple of decades into a viable commercial market,” with hotels and manufacturing and research companies.

The race to colonize Mars is as much a push for economic advancement as technological, but Obama remained hopeful in his op-ed saying that space travel will benefit all Americans.

“If we make our leadership in space even stronger in this century than it was in the last,” Obama wrote, “we won’t just benefit from related advances in energy, medicine, agriculture and artificial intelligence, we’ll benefit from a better understanding of our environment and ourselves.”