Quora: Is a Mars landing in the near future?

nasa mars magnetic shield radiation
The planet Mars is shown May 12, 2016, in this NASA Hubble Space Telescope when it was 50 million miles from Earth. NASA/Handout via Reuters

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Answer from Nicolas Nelson, advocate for human space development:

Will we have landed on Mars in the coming 50 years?

It depends on five distinct entities that could lead the way and accomplish that goal. Each one has lots of supporters and certainly a number of detractors and resistance to overcome.

The first three are government agencies: NASA, CNSA (Chinese National Space Agency), and ESA (European Space Agency). Fifty years is a long time: long enough for any of these slow-moving but highly capable agencies, each with human spaceflight capability (well, ESA is working on it, but it's only a matter of time now, and you're offering fifty years) to scale up to a human mission to Mars. They might even cooperate with one another or with other space agencies (Roscosmos is not going to take the lead but is an obviously strong partner; ISRO a less obvious but highly desirable one; there are plenty of others).

The next two are private firms, SpaceX and Blue Origin, inspired and driven by their visionary owners/leaders Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. Either of these firms could send a human mission to Mars long before any space agency can, if they want to do so and are not constrained by finances.

Jeff Bezos has lots more money than Elon Musk, but Bezos is content to play the slow-and-steady turtle when folks talk of a "race" to Mars. His focus is on cislunar space development first, then Mars when the cislunar infrastructure is in place, at least to some degree.

Elon Musk burns with a passion to colonize Mars (yay!) but he also isn't concerned with any sort of "race" to Mars. He'd be delighted to see others get to Mars first, and has openly said so, if only "others" would hurry up and get busy. But he faces financial constraints that slow down his R&D and rocket building efforts. Musk doesn't seem too concerned with cislunar space infrastructure, his plans are more similar to a Martin Marietta "Mars Direct" style of mission, pushing very quickly past "explore and do science" missions into full-steam settlement mode. But he's taking financial risks to do so, risks that may not pan out. If Tesla or the Gigafactory or the Boring Company flop badly, any one of them could pull all the others down, including SpaceX. The fate of rapid Mars exploration and colonization might rest on whether Tesla's new trucks sell well in 2018! (Okay, maybe not quite that delicate a financial position, but you get the idea.)

So: fifty years from now, Elon Musk will have sent humans to Mars or died/gone bankrupt in the attempt. If all goes well for SpaceX, they will have a crew of humans on the Red Planet in just ten or twelve years… but there's a lot that can delay this.

Fifty years from now, if Elon has failed somehow, Jeff Bezos will have sent humans to Mars, but only recently, and all in good time. Thirty or forty years is about right, I imagine.

Fifty years from now, a NASA/Boeing human mission may have visited Mars two or three times over a span of six years, left flags and footprints, taken a ton or two of geologic samples, and declared it all a success and gone home to Earth, all depending entirely on the notoriously fickle will of the American Congress and constantly-changing presidential administrations. Can this happen? Oh certainly. Is it likely? Certainly not.

Same goes for the ESA and the CNSA: assuming a sustained political will, and diplomatic success in both foreign policy and scientific cooperation, there's no reason either of them (plus any partner they recruit, optionally) could not send a human mission or two to Mars. But so many factors conspire against it, the likelihood is low, in the current geopolitical climate. Just one serious war or threat of imminent war could derail it for another fifty years.

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Quora: Is a Mars landing in the near future? | Opinion