Will Commercial Contracts Superboost NASA's Route to Mars?

With this week's announcement of multi-billion dollar contracts being awarded to two private spaceflight companies comes a renewed excitement for what this could mean for NASA's overarching plans for Mars.

With this week's announcement of multi-billion dollar contracts being awarded to two private spaceflight companies comes a renewed excitement for what this could mean for NASA's overarching plans to see astronauts on the Martian surface (or, at least in Mars orbit) in the next two decades.

Since NASA's space shuttle fleet was grounded after three decades of service in 2011, the US space agency has been dependent on Russian Soyuz launch services to maintain NASA astronaut access to the International Space Station. But with a price tag of almost $70 million per seat, this arrangement is as expensive as it is politically awkward.

So, through various NASA-funded awards, a private US spaceflight industry is slowly emerging.

This culminated on Tuesday with the announcement that aerospace giant Boeing and Elon Musk's Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) will receive $4.2 billion and $2.6 billion, respectively, to develop astronaut-launch capabilities by 2017 as the final phase of NASA's Commercial Crew program. With Orbital Sciences Corp., SpaceX is currently fulfilling another deal to deliver cargo to the International Space Station as part of NASA's Commercial Resupply Services contract.

In parallel, Blue Origin, the spaceflight company founded by Amazon CEO and billionaire Jeff Bezos, has penned an agreement with United Launch Alliance (ULA), a partnership that is widely regarded as direct competition to Musk's accelerating successes.

The intent of NASA's program is not only to provide space launch capabilities for US astronauts to the space station, it is also to catalyze a commercial spaceflight infrastructure that could change the face of how we explore and, indeed, do business throughout the solar system. It also appears to have stirred up rivalry within this emerging marketplace, as the Blue Origin/ULA partnership suggests.

"I know a lot of us are cheering on the success of our Commercial Crew program, not because of what it means to NASA ... but what it means to human spaceflight for everyone," said Kennedy Space Center director and former astronaut Bob Cabana during Tuesday's announcement.

This sentiment was echoed by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, saying: "Turning over low-Earth orbit transportation to private industry will also allow NASA to focus on an even more ambitious mission - sending humans to Mars."

And this is the crux of the promise for invigorating private sector investment in space.

An opportunity has emerged for companies and entrepreneurs to provide space launch capabilities for NASA and other institutions. This, in turn, has taken the onus away from NASA to build orbital taxis themselves and cutting the cost of getting humans to and from the space station.

Private enterprise, with NASA's help and funding, is starting to build an infrastructure that should see routine launch services. And by "routine," we're talking affordable and reusable spacecraft and rockets.

While a commercial infrastructure is being born, NASA can turn to what it does best - to spearhead ambitious projects, pushing mankind deeper into space. One project that always seems to be just beyond the horizon is, of course, a manned mission to Mars.

In 2010, President Barack Obama directed NASA to focus on Mars and to send a manned mission to Red Planet orbit by the mid-2030′s. But in an effort to develop the deep space technologies needed for such a feat, NASA was also set the interim task of sending astronauts to an asteroid that had been captured and steered into moon orbit via robotic means.

Although this asteroid capture mission has been met with some criticism, it has spurred on the development of NASA's next big (controversial) rocket, the Space Launch System (or, simply, SLS), and next-generation spacecraft, the Orion.

The SLS and Orion have their first flight together planned for 2018, but Orion's first space trail is scheduled for later this year. It is envisaged that NASA's first manned mission to Mars will utilize the SLS and Orion.

Unfortunately, spaceflight is highly political and NASA's spaceflight direction is always at the whim of shrinking budgets and political short-sightedness, so although we can hope to see NASA getting close to getting boots on Mars by the 2030′s, it doesn't necessarily mean the plan won't be nixed by the next President or Congress.

But commercial spaceflight, although by no means humanity's golden ticket to space exploration, is driven (primarily) by the promise of profit. And now that NASA has provided seed funds for a commercial low-Earth orbit infrastructure, perhaps we'll see the reality of a genuinely routine hop out of Earth's gravitational well. And if Musk's interplanetary plans play out, SpaceX may push to Mars by itself (if there's a market).

So are we really at a crossroads in becoming an interplanetary species? It's too early to tell whether NASA will make it to Mars in the timeline set out by Obama, but it's certainly exciting to be along for the ride as the commercial sector gains a grip in space.