While politicians such as Sen Ted Cruz and Rep. John Culberson, both Republicans of Texas, expressed satisfaction as President Donald Trump signed the NASA Authorization bill, that joy was not shared by Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX. According to CNBC, Musk complained that the bill provides no support to his Mars ambitions, which include an eventual settlement on the Red Planet. Musk is also planning a private robotic mission to Mars, called Red Dragon, now scheduled for 2020.

Musk’s complaint will no doubt cause some eye-rolling in some quarters and knowing nods in others.

On the one hand, the SpaceX CEO seems to have concluded that his Mars ambitions, which include giant spacecraft taking people to the Red Planet to live 100 at a time, should be paid for by the government. On the other hand, a number of commercial space advocates would be okay with that arrangement, relegating NASA to signing checks for Musk’s Mars colony.

The current Journey to Mars is an underfunded, directionless program more designed to distract than to advance the cause of Deep Space Exploration.

However, two spacecraft, the Orion, and the heavy lift Space Launch System, are being developed with Mars in mind.

The Orion-SLS system would also be useful for an earlier return to the moon, however. Though the moon was not mentioned specifically in the bill the president signed, the Trump administration is contemplating a pivot toward the Earth’s nearest neighbor as a goal that can be achieved in the near term.

Commercial companies such as SpaceX would be asked to become partners in such an effort. Musk has become proactive enough to announce a trip around the moon, carrying two paying customers, using the Dragon spacecraft and the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle. NASA is mulling a similar mission using the Orion and the SLS.

NASA is probably not going to go all in on Musk’s Mars colony effort, at least until SpaceX can prove that it can make significant progress toward that goal on its own.

But commercial partnerships will become a crucial part of any deep space exploration effort going forward.

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