The news the SpaceX plans to land a version of its workhorse spacecraft called the Red Dragon on the surface of Mars as early as 2018 has led to speculation in Discovery Magazine that the entrepreneurial Space launch company could beat NASA in landing people on the Red Planet. The idea bears some closer examination.

On the one hand, NASA plans to launch its own Mars voyage sometime in the 2030s. The space agency is building the heavy-lift Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft as two parts of its Mars architecture.

However, the government has run into some criticism for not funding a lot of the other technology that will be necessary to send human beings to Mars and, presumably, return them safely to the Earth. NASA does not even have a definitive plan to carry out what it poetically calls the Journey to Mars.

On the other hand, SpaceX is developing its version of a heavy lift launcher, albeit with far less capability that the SLS enjoys, called the Falcon Heavy and will in short order have a way to land on Mars with the Red Dragon.

SpaceX’s CEO Elon Musk has made no secret of his desire to not only send humans to Mars but to found a colony on the Red Planet. He has offered hints of what might be called the mother of all rockets, called the Mars Colonial Transport, which can take a hundred people across interplanetary distances at a time. SpaceX has promised to reveal more details of its ambitions at a conference in Guadalajara, Mexico later in 2016.

The factor that stands in the way of both the NASA and a potential SpaceX effort is funding. For the space agency’s part, the president and the Congress could get serious and provide enough money for a serious Mars effort. NASA, with sufficient funding, could develop a detailed plan. SpaceX, on the other hand, does not have the American taxpayer at its beck and call, at least directly. The company has to figure out how to send people to Mars as a business, to find investors or a customer willing to pay for it.

Maybe the customer is the key. Maybe NASA and SpaceX can merge its efforts, combining the heft and experience of the space agency with the nimbleness and the risk-taking culture of a private business.

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