Handicapping the Race to Mars

The Forrest Four-Cast: October 10, 2016

UPDATE: Read President Obama’s essay on Mars exploration via CNN.

Fifty years ago, fierce competitiveness between America and Russia launched the space race — with a man on the moon being the standard by which victory was judged. Many decades later, the new goal is significantly farther away from earth. Today, the target has moved to Mars, with the competition transitioning from nations to two strong US-based corporations.

The sentimental favorite in this battle is SpaceX. Two weeks ago, founder Elon Musk revealed his most current plans for human travel to the red planet — he hopes to start these journeys as early as 2024. Having essentially established himself as the world’s most innovative entrepreneur, its hard to argue that he won’t be successful in this pursuit. But what makes Musk great also tends to be his undoing — his ambitious timelines tend to reflect his supreme self-confidence, which is sometimes at odds with real-world development cycles. Moreover, one wonders how much Tesla (and in turn) Solar City pull his focus away from interplanetary success.

Meanwhile Boeing has positioned itself as the new / not-so-new challenger for Mars supremacy. At the Atlantic “What’s Next” Conference in Chicago last week, CEO Dennis Muilenburg raised more than a few eyebrows with this direct throw-down to Team Elon: “I’m convinced that the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding on a Boeing rocket.” Indeed, the Space Launch System that his company is currently developing aims for human transport by the 2030s. In many ways, Muilenburg’s prediction is like his personality—a little more conservative, but possibly a lot more practical. Although last week’s willingness to spark controversy shows that maybe he isn’t quite as conservative as was initially perceived.

Both SpaceX and Boeing are ultimately developing their Mars-focused technologies for NASA. The more competitive the two companies, the stronger the final product for Houston. Knowing that technology invented during the last space race helped push many ensuing decades of innovation, we’re excited to see the fanfare from another such race.

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