Yesterday I read an interesting article on the Explore Mars Inc website. An oped which will also be published in several media outlets. The crux of the story is very straightforward; “We should head to Mars as a united planet Earth”. Recent events in the space industry though makes me wonder. “Should we go to Mars as a united earth”?
Now, I have to point out, I’m a member of Explore Mars Netherlands and therefor somewhat biased. Nevertheless I’ll give my own opinion. The article notes the great success of the unmanned robot rover Curiousity. Also it laments the end of cooperation between ESA and NASA on the future ExoMars project. The authors point out how succesful international cooperation is and as an example they mention the ISS. Even though the ISS is seen as a big white elephant.
A big white elephant?
The ISS project did finish though and is regularly used. Whether everybody is happy with the ISS and its operational costs remains to be seen. Explore Mars Inc sees the ISS as a model for getting big space projects started and finished and urges for a Sample Return Mission to Mars in the manner of international cooperation. As mentioned the scientific interest for a Sample Return Mission is clearly present. The question is how deep this interst is but how wide.
From this point on I start to have my doubts. Curiousity may be a huge engineering success an its photos are again stunning, it doesn’t get the attention anymore of the wider public. Curiousity really is a big monster, but it isn’t exactly regularly frontpage news. The public and politicians are getting perhaps a bit of robot fatigue and Curiousity could be the last big robot to Mars. So what has happened? Short answer, a shifting focus.
Martian Sample Return Mission.
In fact, what the ISS did cause was a sense that international cooperation was expensive and cumbersome. At the time just after the cold war it was an excellent project to do and it did help to improve relations between former enemies. It also pointed to a severly disfunctional Space Shuttle program. The US clearly needed to reasses its manned space program.
And so it did. Gradually it allowed private parties to deliver space services in stead of NASA. For instance SpaceX is delivering cargo to the ISS as we speak. Also the US started to facilitate private companies to do their own “space thing” outside of NASA. Space tourism was born. These new policies will have implications for future space projects.
Big brother goes to Mars.
An important implication is that the attention of the media and the public is put back to Earth. In the near future it will be possible for average Joe to go suborbital and with a bit more money go full orbit. Suddenly space isn’t something exclusively for space and science geeks, you know, that 0.1% of the population. Space has become truely commercial. When we talk space we mention Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Burt Rutan etc.
One of the more adventurous commercial space projects is Mars One. This Dutch enterprise envisiones a one way ticket to Mars. This journey will use off the shelf commercial hardware and is fully private funded. No sciency jusification needed. It pays by streaming 24×7 the daily life of the crew to Earth just like Big Borther. On route and on Mars.
At the crossroads.
Will a United States or an EU still be interested in big ticket international projects like a Sample Return Mission when the public wants to go suborbital or visit a space hotel? Will the nations go to Mars as “One” if the true frontier and the commercial opportunities are near Earth? If commercial space keeps going forward we might have to choose which path to go. Big scientific robotic government programs catering for a tiny public of scientists or commercial space enterprises for a wide audience.
My guess is the future is rather like Mars One and less like yet antoher big white elephant of scientific space robot. We space geeks live in exciting times. Thanks to commercial space we see a glimmer of hope of the science fiction we love come true. If only for a tourist ride to near Earth Space.