Obama’s Plan for the U.S. to Go to Mars is Six Years Old and Still a Work in Progress

Obama is leaving his successor an inter-planetary mess.

Why is Barack Obama touting his six year-old plans to explore Mars this week?

There’s a space conference later this week, but we’ll guess that it has more to do with generating goodwill toward the president’s political party ahead of November’s elections than actually laying a new marker down for what NASA, the US space agency, should be doing. Briefly,

We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time. Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators, and we’re already well on our way. Within the next two years, private companies will for the first time send astronauts to the International Space Station.

In a single paragraph, Obama has identified the ambitious goal he first set in 2010, and hinted at the tension underlying how and whether it will be ever accomplished. NASA’s plan to send six astronauts to Mars in the late 2020s is extremely expensive and not very efficient, with some wondering if it will ever get off the ground. Some believe that Hillary Clinton will pivot US space goals away from Mars and toward the moon.

Meanwhile, private companies have pushed the envelope on the all important bang-for-buck ratio—sometimes, over-delivering on the bang.

Public-private partnerships have done much good for the US space program under Obama—he mentioned that the US has recaptured a third of the commercial launch market “thanks to groundwork laid by men and women at NASA.” That’s a reference to the success of SpaceX, the company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk and financially backed by NASA as it developed a new US rocket.

Musk laid out his own Mars plans last month at the International Astronautical Congress, and they were quite a bit more ambitious than what the US is envisioning; he sees thousands of people arriving on the red planet to colonize it within the next few decades. His private-sector vision is also arguably cheaper, because of greater risk the company is willing to assume and the economies of scale of such a large effort.

“SpaceX was founded with the ultimate goal of helping make humans a multi-planetary species,” SpaceX spokesperson Phil Larson said in a statement. “As Elon said at his recent talk, it will take a combination of public and private efforts to build a self-sustaining city on Mars. It’s exciting to see President Obama advocate for the next frontier in human space flight, and we look forward to participating in the journey.”

NASA and SpaceX are already collaborating on Mars missions that could launch as soon as 2018, and numerous private space companies are working to develop habitats and other technology intended for space exploration.

Yet tensions about NASA’s role in the modern space age, questions raised by SpaceX’s still-unexplained rocket fire in September, the as-yet unresolved race between SpaceX and Boeing to carry humans to the International Space Station, and even fundamental questions about thesafety of humans on Mars remain in the way of any Martian mission involving public funds and privately-operated spacecraft.

Obama’s team hasn’t really confronted these issues head-on, due to more pressing political questions and the byzantine politics of NASA and its prime contractors, and it’s too late now. But commercial space enthusiasts reading between the lines of the president’s op-ed will find reason to hope that the next generation of space companies will find a place in the US government’s Mars plans.