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. NASA's own history reads as an improbable list of "firsts." When President John F. Kennedy declared in 1961 that the United States would put a man on the moon by the end of that decade, no one had the technologies we would need to get there. NASA scientists and engineers led a government-industry team inventing the rocket boosters, space capsule and computer-guidance systems from scratch in just a few years.
Of course, before it succeeded, NASA failed publicly many times. If we had entrusted the project to private industry, shareholders or investors would have pulled the plug long before the Apollo program. Prototype space capsules would be gathering dust in a museum, labeled as a misstep for private companies instead of a giant leap for mankind.
NASA's long-term determination led to the success that makes today's commercial spaceflight possible. NASA is already preparing to take the next giant leaps. The agency just released a plan to corral an asteroid into orbit around the moon. NASA should partner with industry in this pursuit and enable the utilization of the asteroid it explores. NASA engineers are developing new technologies for a manned Mars mission such as new propulsion systems that produce high velocities at low power, efficient wastewater recycling for long missions, deep-space radiation shields, and the most powerful rocket booster in history, known as the Space Launch System. We haven't produced a rocket this powerful since the Saturn V was retired in 1973. This booster will be nearly 10 times more powerful than the commercial space rockets now used to restock the International Space Station.
This is our era's Moon shot — the difficult challenge that we choose to accept not because it is easy, as Kennedy said, but because it is hard, because it will drive us to build new technologies, answer the toughest questions, and inspire a new generation of American engineers and scientists to carry the torch for decades to come.
We should continue to support commercial space companies as they make spaceflight cheaper and more accessible. We should not be content, though, to do what we've done since the '60s, only a little cheaper — or to stake our most important space exploration goal on the whims of the market. We should continue to push the envelope and expand the frontier as a top national priority. That's a job only NASA can lead.
Charlie Walker, a former Space Shuttle astronaut, is an engineer and expert on space exploration and commercialization.