It’s no secret that the next target for space exploration is Mars. The challenge isn't just about getting there though; it's also about getting there without harming the human cargo, and then safely getting back to Earth.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin companies have made it very public that travel to Mars is at the top of their lists. SpaceX has already completed a number of commercial launches for NASA and others, while Blue Origins will make its debut in 2020.
However, doing more than delivering supplies to the International Space Station or putting satellites into orbit will require a much larger rocket. For SpaceX, this task will fall to the BFR, or Big Falcon Rocket, that is currently being developed at the company's facility in Los Angeles. For Blue Origin, it’s the New Glenn rocket.
Both companies are projecting the ability to launch and land an unmanned crew on the moon, which is considered the equivalent of a highway rest stop, before heading to Mars, by 2021. SpaceX is even projecting the ability to send a crewed rocket to Mars by 2024.
On the other side of this equation is NASA and the SLS, or Space Launch System, a super heavy-lift rocket that’s projected to be able to handle a payload of more than 55 tons. NASA is targeting an initial unmanned test launch in 2020, with a crewed version following about two years later, which puts it behind SpaceX and Blue Origin by about a year. This trend continues, with NASA hoping to hit the moon with the SLS by 2023, about two years later than its private counterparts.
While these are all projections that of course can’t accommodate for fluctuations in funding, mechanical accidents, or SEC probes that might serve as a distraction, the overall pace of the commercial space sector could present some tough decisions.
NASA has reportedly spent just under $12 billion on the SLS and will need at least $5 billion more to meet its goals over the next three years. While pricing for private space launches to the moon and Mars are yet to be determined, SpaceX has a track record of performing these launches more cost-effectively than NASA. Recent performance and future plans have many asking about what will happen to NASA if SpaceX and Blue Origin continue to outpace the agency.