There’s a reason why images of Mars and their fictional inhabitants are embedded in our entertainment, pop culture, and our candy bars, as emblems of something unknown and exciting. It is our new, New World. The mere idea of seeing Mars in person is nothing short of wondrous. Imagine standing on the edge of Valles Marineris, our solar system’s deepest valley, gazing out over the vast chasm of red iron oxide, two hundred kilometers wide and seven kilometers deep into the alien planet. Or atop Olympus Mons, our solar system’s tallest mountain, peering into the black heavens of our universe feeding a childlike sense of hope and promise.
Ever since July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong stamped mankind’s first footprint into the lunar regolith, we have reposed such dreams with NASA. “One small step for man,” Mr. Armstrong famously said, “one giant leap for mankind.” With the Apollo 11 mission, the U.S. government achieved a milestone like none other. Yet, forty years after our giant leap, here we stand, in the same ankle deep puddle of space, with more worlds beckoning from the vastness of the universe than there are grains of sand on our beaches. So why the delay?
Despite government’s early success with space exploration, NASA has unfortunately become like so many other government institutions that we know: inefficient and stagnant. For the last half century, NASA has enjoyed a government enabled monopoly on space exploration, and, like any monopoly, it diverted too many resources to inefficient uses. President Obama’s decision to gut NASA’s Constellation program was the right thing to do. Private companies were scheduled to place manned shuttles in orbit ahead of NASA, even before the defunding. The Constellation program was obsolete.
Private companies now have a chance to claim this turf, and they are doing so quickly. Take SpaceX, for example, one of the private companies in this field. It has developed a rocket, the Falcon-9 Heavy, that can deliver more than double the payload of current rockets. This, according to Robert Zubrin, president of Pioneer Astronautics, is enough power to land 11 metric tons of payload on Martian ground. Coupled with SpaceX’s lightweight Dragon passenger and cargo capsule, which weighs in at a mere eight tons, a direct flight to Mars is feasible by 2016, says Mr. Zubrin. The voyage would require three separate Dragon capsule launches—the first shuttle to land on Mars unmanned to deposit the second shuttle, which is the ride home, and the third shuttle to launch the crew to Mars. And the cost of all this? A mere $100 million per Falcon-9 Heavy rocket and less for each Dragon capsule. Compared to NASA’s current budget of $18.7 billion for 2012 alone, a SpaceX trip to Mars and back is pennies to the dollar. And for people like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, who have a combined net worth of nearly $100 billion, funding a trip to Mars would be the equivalent of an upper-middle class family buying a BMW. It is time to do this, and we don’t need government to help.
The implications of a successful and privately funded mission to Mars would be profound. It was an historic moment when Christopher Columbus, funded by the Spanish crown, discovered the New World. A private voyage to Mars would be even more so. A new planet is categorically better than a new continent, and a privately funded settlement is categorically better than a government funded one. Unlike every other major discovery of land in human history, this one would have no strings attached to government and all of its many rules, interest groups and bureaucrats. To see the flag of a private settlement flying on Martian soil could mark the hopeful beginnings of a new type of society, one founded on the principles of self-ownership, freedom of contract, and whatever other private laws we voluntarily accept. It is, in some ways, sadly poetic that we must travel into the distant frontiers of space to discover that with which we were born to begin: the child within us, freedom.