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Image: Elon Musk in Dragon
SpaceX founder Elon Musk sits in one of the seats of a Crew Dragon capsule during its unveiling in 2014. (Credit: SpaceX)

Is SpaceX founder Elon Musk crazy to press ahead with plans to send people to Mars? Or crazy like a fox? A rehash of discouraging words from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has sparked a renewed debate over Musk’s grand plan.

Tyson’s pronouncements actually date back to last November, when he told The Verge in an interview that people were deluding themselves if they thought private enterprise alone could send people to Mars.

“The delusion is thinking that SpaceX is going to lead the space frontier,” Tyson said. “That’s just not going to happen.”

He explained that interplanetary spaceflight is just too expensive and risky, with too little of an initial return on investment, to make sense as a private venture. “A government has a much longer horizon over which it can make investments,” Tyson said. (He told Larry King pretty much the same thing months earlier.)

Tyson’s skeptical comments resurfaced this week in a Motley Fool commentary, with an added twist: Commentator Rich Smith concluded that Musk could pull off human missions to Mars, even without NASA’s support, if he were to raise the required cash in a SpaceX IPO.

That’s not going to happen for a while, based on what Musk said during his visit to Seattle a year ago.

“When we’re doing regular flights to Mars, that might be a good time to go public,” he said. “But before then, because the long-term goals of SpaceX are really long term – it takes a long time to build a city on Mars – that doesn’t match with the short-term time frame of public shareholders and portfolio managers that are looking at the two- to four-year time horizon.”

Musk has said he could send humans to Mars by 2025, assuming that the money’s available. In contrast, NASA has a longer, more nebulous time frame that calls for astronauts to go to Mars and its moons starting in the 2030s.

Does Musk need to follow NASA’s timetable to get to Mars? Some say no. NASA Watch’s Keith Cowing, for example, notes that Musk runs a multibillion-dollar business and is really, really rich.

“These non-trivial resources allow an individual to shift their own paradigms to suit their whims independent of usual norms,” Cowing writes. “In Musk’s case – that whim is the exploration of Mars. Deal with it, Neil.”

Others say NASA’s involvement has been part of Musk’s long-range plan all along. In a Facebook post, the Mars Society’s Robert Zubrin says “Tyson doesn’t understand what Musk is up to.”

“Despite his public statements, Musk isn’t going to fund humans to Mars out of his own pocket,” Zubrin writes. “But what he will do – is in fact already doing – is create the hardware set that will lower the cost threshold for sending humans to Mars so much that, sooner or later, a president will go for it. In that case, SpaceX will get the business – they will have earned it, and in any case, they’ll be the only game in town.”

When will Musk reveal more about what he’s up to? In January, he told an interviewer that he’d share the detailed blueprint for sending settlers to Mars in September at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico. That’s just about the time when the presidential campaign will be going into warp drive.

Will “Mars or Bust” become a political issue on a par with “Bernie or Bust”? Stay tuned … even Neil deGrasse Tyson will want to hear about this one.

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