The first space age was fueled by the dueling ambitions of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., with the world's two superpowers competing to set the first milestones in space exploration.
Now it looks like the second space age will be spurred on by another rivalry, this time between corporations headed by visionaries with dreams of going to Mars.
A week after SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk announced his plan to get humans to Mars within six years -- a lofty goal that surpasses even the wildest expectations of scientists -- Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg threw his hat into the ring, telling the audience at an innovation conference that his company intends to beat SpaceX to the red planet.
“I’m convinced the first person to step foot on Mars will arrive there riding a Boeing rocket,” Muilenburg said at the Atlantic magazine-sponsored technology forum.
Like Musk, Muilenburg said he envisions a future where space travel becomes routine, with industry forming around efforts to colonize Mars, as well as large-scale space tourism that would be more affordable and widely available than the current offerings, which can cost more than $1 million per person just to travel in low Earth orbit.
Muilenburg and others are thinking bigger, picturing passenger liners that would take tourists beyond low Earth orbit to the moon, Mars and possibly beyond.
In late September, Musk said he welcomes competition.
“The goal of SpaceX really is to build the transport system. It’s like building the Union Pacific railroad,” Musk told an audience at a space conference, per Bloomberg Technology.
But both Musk and Muilenberg are technology guys focused on challenges of rocketry and fuel, efficiencies and scale. As The Verge's Elizabeth Lopatto pointed out in a Sept. 28 story, going to space -- and establishing a colony on a hostile world without an atmosphere -- presents much wider range of challenges involving human biology, psychology, and issues like shielding colonists from radiation.
Musk, she wrote, seems "wholly uninterested in food or habitat," viewing them as "soft, messy biology problems" for others to figure out.
Yet those problems must be tackled before plans to colonize Mars can be considered more than fantasy.
"Those soft, messy biology problems Musk is ignoring are the critical problems, the ones that are truly difficult for long-term Mars living," Lopatto wrote.
Both SpaceX and Boeing are also contracted by the U.S. government for ongoing projects with NASA, but the goal of human space exploration looms large in the imaginations of space enthusiasts, as NASA increasingly turns to exploration by proxy, using machines like the Mars rovers to explore planetary surfaces and probes to map the outer reaches of the solar system.
Boeing's got more than a bit of history on its side, Bloomberg notes. The company built the first stage for the Saturn V rocket, which was used by NASA for the Apollo program and was later used to launch the first-ever U.S. space station, Skylab, in 1973.