With all the attention being on new private initiatives in space travel hogging the headlines, it is worth noting that there is the real prospect of a new space race taking place between China and the United States, with China planning an eventual lunar landing as a prelude to a mission to Mars.
There would be plenty of people who would welcome such a development, but I am not one of them. As I see it, there is a legitimate role for government funded space programs, but there must be a sensible trade-off between costs and benefits. The Voyager Space probes were sensible investments that produced wonderful results; the Apollo Program, for all the hype, was not something that was worth the immense cost.
I say this because the way that technology is developing, private ventures are expanding in their capabilities quite quickly, and they are much more suitable enterprises to carry the torch of humanity into space. The original space race between the USA and the USSR carried awfully nationalistic and ideological connotations, and a future race between China and the USA is certainly going to have a stench of nationalism about it. Private enterprise ventures have a much greater capacity to bring in international participation.
It cannot be denied, of course, that government ventures are capable of achieving far more, and far quicker, then private ones; having the power of the state to extract wealth from its citizenry, and a powerful will, can cause amazing things to happen. The Apollo Program is a case in point, and so was the Manhattan Project. That does not mean that they are justifiable.
China’s space program is still at a relatively modest stage; they only succeeded in putting an astronaut into orbit in 2003. But if they invested enough money in it, they could progress quite quickly. It is simply a matter of how high that they consider it in their list of priorities. If they give it a high priority they could certainly reach their goals, especially given that Chinese taxpayers are not in a position to object.
How long is it going to take private explorers to get to do serious space travel? That point is no longer moot. From 2004 the progress of private ventures has been impressive, and if this momentum can be continued, it might well be that the first private entrepreneur on the moon might not be that far behind the Chinese and American astronauts. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the first explorer on Mars represented a private consortium?