In just the past week, Congress has introduced a bill directing NASA to put a manned base on the moon by 2022, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said that he'll be sending humans to Mars in a little as 10 years. But can it happen, and do we even want it to?
The "Reasserting American Leadership in Space Act" would tell NASA to "develop a sustained human presence on the moon in order to promote exploration, commerce, science and United States preeminence in space as a stepping stone for the future exploration of Mars and other destinations," all by 2022. That sounds good in theory, but the bill basically just says, "Hey, go do this," without recognizing that it may be both a technologically and fiscally impossible task for NASA to accomplish within that time frame.
Private industry is rapidly catching up to NASA. In the next ten years especially, the space agency seems likely to get eclipsed after the impending retirement of the space shuttle. SpaceX might have the credentials to back up its space exploration plans, which would put humans on Mars in a decade if everything goes well. That's a big if, though, since SpaceX still has a lot of work to do to get its Falcon heavy-lift rocket operational by 2012.
Is a 10 year timetable — especially one that includes Mars — reasonable? SpaceX founder Elon Musk even puts the worst case at "15 to 20 years." When considering investing in an outpost on the moon at all, there are so many variables: whether we want it to be manned by humans (as opposed to robots and the like) or whether NASA is even the best fit for the job.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a big supporter of NASA and I think there's a lot of important lunar research that still needs to be done. At the same time, however, I think that the amount of additional infrastructure required to support humans would be hard to justify considering the capabilities of autonomous or teleoperated systems. And it seems that NASA itself is starting to focus more on outsourcing spaceflight (and space exploration) to private industry, which often exhibits the same levels of creativity and technical expertise without the bureaucratic baggage and budget constraints.
And as for Mars, I think there's much more of a future for us there. Robots have done a lot on Mars, but it's really time for us to push our limits and get out into the solar system. It's going to be a new era for us as a species, when we go from being planet-bound to colonizing our solar system. We've seen some pretty cool ideas for setting up the first permanent bases on Mars, and while ten years (or even 20 years) might be ambitious, it's what we've got to start working towards.