Failure to invest in the next frontier of human space travel would be both a “big disappointment” and a danger to mankind, said Gwynne Shotwell, president of Space Exploration Technologies Corp.
“It’s really risk management for humans,” said Shotwell, who spoke today before the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based policy group once led by Chuck Hagel, who’s now the U.S. defense secretary. “I’m pretty sure there will be a catastrophic event, and it would be nice to have humans living in more than one spot.”
SpaceX, as billionaire Elon Musk’s company is known, has been fighting for a piece of the $67.6 billion Pentagon satellite-launch market. It became the first to dock a private, unmanned supply ship at the International Space Station, and is developing a craft to transport astronauts there and beyond.
Shotwell spoke as the National Research Council issued a report recommending that the U.S., with the help of international partners, set a goal of going to Mars. Space travel is so expensive and risky that it can be justified only by the end game of sending humans to other planets, the council wrote.
“For the foreseeable future, the only feasible destinations for human exploration are the moon, asteroids, Mars, and the moons of Mars,” Jonathan Lunine, co-chairman of the committee behind the report, said in a statement. “Among this small set of plausible goals, the most distant and difficult is putting human boots on the surface of Mars, thus that is the horizon goal for human space exploration.”
Lunine is also director of the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
It would take decades and hundreds of billions of dollars to reach Mars, and such a feat would require boosting the budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, according to the report, mandated by Congress.
Successive presidents would have to commit to that goal rather than making “frequent and dramatic changes in program goals and mission plans in response to changes in national policies,” the council said.
“Any human exploration program will only succeed if it is appropriately funded and receives a sustained commitment on the part of those who govern our nation,” Mitch Daniels, committee co-chairman and president of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, said in a statement. “That commitment cannot change direction election after election.”
Daniels, a Republican, is former governor of Indiana.
Among SpaceX’s goals are transporting astronauts to Mars.
“Since we demonstrated our technical chops with our launch success, now we’re talking about Mars,” Shotwell said today. She said “it seems like a big disappointment” not to explore beyond Earth.
SpaceX sued the Air Force in April to try to void the service’s contract with United Launch Alliance LLC, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co. that has a lock on the military’s satellite launches.
Musk has criticized the venture’s use of Russian engines to power one of its rockets, saying it may jeopardize national security. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has said the U.S. would no longer be able to buy engines from his country to launch the satellites.
Shotwell said today that SpaceX is open to an out-of-court settlement of the Air Force lawsuit.
SpaceX currently ferries cargo to the space station under a $1.6 billion NASA contract. It has development funding from NASA for a manned craft, and competing vehicles are being developed by Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corp., and Blue Origin LLC, founded by Jeff Bezos, chairman and chief executive officer of Amazon.com Inc.