Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks so. He doesn’t believe that Elon Musk’s plan to send people to Mars is going to fly. I’ll just let him lay out his argument in his own words:
The Columbus analogy is fairly persuasive, but it ultimately it rests on the assumption that things in the future are more or less bound to work the way they have in the past. Long-time readers will know that I am not overly attached to that particular assumption. For example, I think that it’s likely to get us in a lot of trouble where automation replacing jobs is concerned. In the past, whenever technology eliminated jobs, it created more jobs in the process. But that might not go on forever, and our assumption that it will is a very risky one, especially with the work force shrinking ever smaller. Likewise, the fact that governments have traditionally sponsored the earliest missions that open up new frontiers doesn’t mean that it always has to work that way.
In any case, there is an argument to be made that the government has already done its job in opening up the frontier of space. They have demonstrated that we can send human beings into space and to land on other worlds (Apollo.) They have demonstrated that people can live and work in space long-term (Mir and ISS). And they have done yeoman’s work in exploring, mapping, and generally getting to know the very planet that Elon Musk wants to go to: Mars.
Tyson talks about how the first mission is always carried out by the government. But here’s the thing: Mars is not virgin territory. We’ve been going there since the 1960′s, landing there since the 1970′s. We just haven’t been going in person. Ferdinand and Isabella didn’t have the option of sending unmanned probes out to prove that you can reach Asia by sailing west. Give them that option, and assuming that a hypothetical Renaissance-era unmanned probe would have cost less than three ships plus crew plus supplies, that’s exactly how they would have done it.
Also, Tyson makes no mention of Planetary Resources, the company that plans to start mining near-Earth asteroids for profit in the near future. What are the risks? Who are the investors? What’s the ROI? These aren’t just rhetorical questions. People are seriously working out the answers to them as we speak.
Via technology, capabilities that once belonged only to large nation states and mega-corporations are being passed into the hands of ever-smaller entities and individuals. Increasingly we may find that small private initiatives are not only a workable way to get humanity into space; they may well be the best way to do it.