The Barack Obama Mars 2030 Plan: Will It Really Work?

As reported by the AP, President Obama Mars op-ed published at CNN today paints a vivid picture in which NASA — working in concert with other agencies and private industry — would sometime after 2030 finally make an expedition to the planet Mars. But is the Barack Obama Mars vision for NASA a tangible possibility, or will Elon Musk and SpaceX beat NASA to Mars long before that?

In President Obama’s article on CNN entitled “America Will Take the Giant Leap to Mars,” the president lays out an arresting narrative in which America and NASA march boldly to Mars somewhere in the 2030 timeframe.

“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.”

As a part of this putative Obama Mars 2030 initiative, the President does acknowledge that — along with the assumed continued leadership of NASA and the federal government — private industry and private space companies like SpaceX will play a role in the exploration and colonization of Mars.

“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.”

Mars And NASA Under Obama

Mars has been a goal for NASA since the 1960s. But as reported by CNN, there is good reason to believe that private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origins — and perhaps others — will beat NASA to Mars by years. In fact, given the history of NASA projects, delays are almost inevitable in the Obama Mars plans. Even worse, it’s unlikely NASA will have the funding.

In fact, given that Barack Obama has only months left in his presidency, this vision of Mars presented by Obama is less of a concrete proposal than a wistful dream of Mars that will have to be realized by someone else. And this speculative “someone” might not be a future president.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk speaks during the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico.
SpaceX founder Elon Musk speaks during the 67th International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico. [Image by Refugio Ruiz/AP Photo]

Who Will Get Us To Mars

Obama keeps NASA front and center in his article on the subject of Mars exploration, but only weeks ago Elon Musk and SpaceX announced their plans for expeditions to Mars that would take place much sooner than those planned by NASA and proposed by President Obama. Musk wants to land an unmanned vehicle on Mars and send human beings to the red planet within the next 10 years.

If this works, by the time NASA gets there Elon Musk might be standing on the surface of Mars waiting to greet them. While Musk has a tendency to make grandiose promises, he also has the surprising habit of frequently fulfilling those promises.

A Legacy for Obama

Mars holds such a grip on the public imagination, that stressing its importance in his last few months in office might be the President’s way of establishing an Obama Mars legacy in space exploration. While the Obama administration has done much to encourage the development of private space ventures, the simple fact is that much of the realization and benefits of these programs will happen under other presidents.

Human Beings on Mars

Centuries ago, Italian astronomer Giordano Bruno speculated that other worlds must have life. But while the Bruno Mars would already be teeming with plants and animals, unmanned probes have made it clear that the real Mars — probably — has no living organisms. If it’s ever going to be populated with life, humanity will have to do the populating.

But whether the Obama Mars vision in which NASA continues to lead the way to Mars — with assistance from private industry — is what will actually happen is an open question.

[Featured Image by Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images]