With the announcement of Blue Origins New Glenn rocket, the United States now boasts three major launch vehicles trying to achieve what only the Saturn V has, leaving low earth orbit (LEO) for human spaceflight. NASA takes a seat at the table with their new launch vehicle, Space Launch Systems (SLS), which will have a test launch in 2018. With the Orion crew capsule on top, the SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever launched, eventually sending astronauts to Mars. The SpaceX Falcon 9 heavy, having three times less the payload capacity than SLS, is scheduled to have its first test launch in early 2017.
Blue Origin, NASA and SpaceX are all trying to reach beyond LEO. There is more hardware being fabricated for spaceflight today than every before. With many stepping-stones along the way, Mars is still the ultimate goal.
But who will get there first?
I assert that NASA is the only one capable of landing on Mars with humans but they do not possess the necessary funds. The private sector is unable to budget the unquantifiable risks that only a public organization like NASA can. Collaboration among NASA, ESA, JAXA, Boeing, Blue Origin, SpaceX, Lockheed Martin and the like will be imperative to landing on Mars. Collaboration isn’t new; SpaceX has serviced resupply missions to the International Space Station since late 2012 and their able to do it cheaper. Ideally, future collaboration will entail a private company supplying the launch vehicle while NASA provides the payload. In this case the necessary equipment to land on Mars. But that collaboration will take some time to assign responsibilities, develop designs and build vehicle systems.
Eventually, like what the private industry is doing now with LEO, SpaceX or Blue Origin will make launching beyond LEO profitable. Blue Origin still has to build a rocket that can get to LEO, let alone past it and SpaceX has to improve their track record. The company struck a blow when there last Falcon 9 experienced anomaly on pad 20 at Kennedy Space Center during routine testing. This is the second Falcon 9 failure in the last 15 months. NASA will require more launch history before they rely on a private company for all launch vehicle responsibility. Until then: Blue Origin, NASA, and SpaceX are racing toward the next space frontier.