According to Inverse, William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, was posed an unusual question at a recent panel discussion at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’s annual Explore SPACE Forum. What will NASA do if Elon Musk’s SpaceX beats the space agency to Mars?

Gerstenmaier tried to deflect the implications of the questions by suggesting that the two entities are not in a race and, if SpaceX lands people on Mars, well, good for them.

That Musk’s Mars ambitions, considering the current mystery as to why a SpaceX Falcon 9 turned into a fireball persists, are being taken seriously is a testament to the CEO’s charisma and the faith many people have in commercial space to do anything it sets out to do. SpaceX already intends to land a vehicle called Red Dragon on Mars in 2018 and, by the mid-2020s, people. He plans to open his mind further about how he intends to colonize the Red Planet at a conference in Mexico in due course.

Considering the great difficulty and expense of sending people across the interplanetary gulfs, one wondering how a private company could carry it out or even why, aside from the glory of it. Perhaps that is not Musk’s ultimate plan. Perhaps he would like NASA to outsource its Journey to Mars program and let SpaceX carry it out in exchange for a spaceship full of cash.

The idea even makes a kind of sense, NASA is well on its way to building two of the elements of a Mars expedition, the deep space ship Orion and the heavy lift Space Launch System, but has little left over right now for things like landers, habitats, or advanced propulsion systems.

Maybe resorting to the private sector for these necessary add-ons would become an increasingly attractive strategy as the next decade looms. The demands for such a merger will be made more vocal if SpaceX looks like it is making progress in five or so years. It would fit into the current approach of commercial partnerships to stretch scarce dollars the better to explore space.


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