Getting There From Here

Private missions to Mars are attracting more and more attention from the serious press. Here’s a clip from a piece today in The Economist discussing Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars project:

Even if everything does go according to plan, though, cynics might question the value of a billion-dollar, one-and-a-half year trip that comes within spitting distance of Mars but does not land. Dr MacCallum points out that even a fly-by would generate a great deal of publicity. “It would be a [Charles] Lindbergh” mission, says Dr Zubrin. “The point would be to prove it can be done.”

Exactly. Sometimes you just have to kick the tires and light the fires if you want to get things done. A privately bankrolled mission doesn’t have to fine-tune every aspect of it to please capricious politicians (who could really give a crap) and a skittish public (in reality, a skittish and hyperventilating press but you get my drift). That is, treating safety itself as if it’s the overall goal while at the same time making it such a bloated do-it-all attempt that nothing gets done except burning up a few billions on Powerpoint Engineering.

Really…what was the last manned spacecraft development program that NASA successfully completed? Hint: we just stopped flying them last year. And I’m defining “successful” as “a completed vehicle that managed to fly.” Anyway, it appears The Economist’s editors have a similar take on things:

It is entirely possible—likely, even—that neither of these missions will happen. Mr Tito has the better chance, but there are many more ways for him to fail than to succeed. Mr Lansdorp’s plans look too ambitious to be credible. And NASA’s recent history suggests that its aspirations, too, will be blown off course by a future president. But all this will not deter true believers, who have been discussing how to run a Mars trip for decades. With the cost of space flight lower than ever, it seems unlikely that the dream will die.

In related news, SpaceX is still at it:

First test of the Falcon 9 reusable first stage. Credit: SpaceX

Boeing, meanwhile, is still plugging away on their CST-100 system. And I hate to say it, but of all the commercial crew projects out there this one might be the least likely to succeed – and it has nothing to do with design or expertise. Rather, it’s all about The Borg’s commitment to private space. Personally, I just don’t think it’s there. They’ve made comments before about not being able to close the business case – or even being all that interested in trying to – if the funding dries up. That cost-plus contractor legacy must be hard to shake, considering NASA’s money is chump change when compared to Boeing’s resources. Of all the CCDev projects, they could certainly afford to throw the most money at it without hurting the company.

As the big dinosaurs fight over their food supply, smart little mammals stay out of their way and just keep doing what they do. In the meantime, here comes the asteroid…

Wow. Who knew aerospace had so much in common with publishing?

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