In the 1960s, the United States of America and the Soviet Union battled for technological superiority and political supremacy. The Space Race captivated the imaginations of many as man, woman, and child looked up at the moon and dared to wonder where mankind would set foot next. Our endeavours since then, however, have failed to captivate in quite the same way. Satellite launches and interplanetary probes just cannot capture the imagination in quite the same way, at least not for the majority of observers.

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Recently, however, the beginnings of a new space race have emerged, contested not by global superpowers, but by private corporations seeking economic gain. SpaceX, a company spearheaded by Elon Musk, is one of the frontrunners and has ambitious plans to make humanity an interplanetary species. Despite setbacks plaguing SpaceX’s Falcon 9 launches, Musk’s enthusiasm remains as strong as ever. Just last month, the entrepreneur released a video simulation of his $10 billion Interplanetary Transport System, alongside provisional flight timetables and engineering details.

Of course, bringing these plans to fruition will be far from easy, and Musk recognises as much. The company’s current outgoings for rocket development are in the region of tens of millions of dollars a year. The rocket that will take humans to Mars is estimated to cost $10 billion. What’s more, creating a self-sufficient colony on the planet – Musk’s ultimate goal – would require 10,000 flights and a timeframe of at least 40 years. But despite these challenges, SpaceX is far from the only player in the new space race.

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Last week, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg put forward his own company’s ambitions. “I’m convinced that the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding on a Boeing rocket,” he said, while also taking a not too subtle dig at new companies like SpaceX for lacking “substance.”

Although these companies have significant financial clout of their own, any successful mission to Mars will surely require both private and public investment. Ultimately, that old head from the original space race, NASA, may have the deciding say on which firm gets to Mars first. SpaceX has built up a relationship with the space agency by sending cargo to the International Space Station, but Boeing’s long history in aviation will surely work in its favour and the company was recently confirmed as the primary contractor for NASA’s Space Launch System.

New race, new players

Although NASA is likely to be involved in some way, the 21st century space race is shaping up to be very different from the one that captivated audiences in the 1960s. In theory, any private company with enough financial backing could attempt the first manned mission to Mars and that comes with a number of risks. Already NASA has stated that it would offer advice and criticism if it felt that a private company was taking unnecessary risks with its astronauts, but the space agency is ultimately powerless to regulate the actions of private companies.

Unfortunately, the openness of this space race has raised concerns about some of its participants. Mars One is a not-for-profit organisation aiming to set up a permanent human colony on the red planet. Although the company has already selected a pool of 100 candidates for the one way trip, it seems otherwise underprepared. Its 2025 timeframe has been called wildly optimistic and its $6 billion budget appears as undercooked as it is unachievable. When all this is coupled with the now-abandoned idea of using reality TV to raise funds and the worrying testimony of the candidates involved, Mars One begins to look more dangerously slapdash than simply naïve.

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Whoever ultimately wins the 21st century space race, it is unlikely that they will do so without outside help. Instead of the dichotomy of US vs USSR, this new endeavour will surely be a more a collaborative one, taking its cue from other international space missions of recent years. The private companies hoping to put mankind on another planet for the first time in its history share a great opportunity, but also a huge responsibility. Just like the Moon landing in 1969, a manned mission to Mars promises to be a defining event, scientifically, culturally and historically.