NASA and private sector have big plans for space travel — and they’re recruiting

Amid all the coronavirus worries, here’s a positive development: NASA this month began taking applications for new astronauts.

You probably won’t qualify: Candidates must have STEM backgrounds, and the odds of being accepted in the last round were 50 times worse than those for Harvard applicants.

Plus NASA’s at least four years away from getting anyone to the moon — though that’s far from the only manned mission now on the planning boards.

On the other hand, firms like Axiom Space and Elon Musk’s SpaceX are starting to offer regular commercial trips that are (literally) out of this world — and you don’t need to be a real astronaut.

It’s not cheap: You need to fork over $55 million for a seat on the first fully private-sector spaceflight, slated for next year — complete with two days of space travel and eight days at the International Space Station. (Better act fast: Only two of the three available seats are left, reports The New York Times.)

But prices will come down, as the long-term prospects for off-planet exploration — and residency — are improving.

NASA is forging ahead with its “Moon to Mars” program, with a planned lunar landing date in 2024.

The moon leg, called Artemis (Apollo’s twin sister), includes an orbiting spacecraft with room for astronauts to live for up to three months, while shuttling back and forth to the lunar surface.

That’ll allow for extended periods of exploration and access to more moon sites, including, notably, the lunar South Pole, which is thought to hold hundreds of millions of tons of ice. (Off-Earth ice is a huge asset for further space exploration.)

NASA hopes to “establish a permanent human presence on the moon” as it searches for “scientific discoveries” and lays “the foundation for private companies to build a lunar economy.”

Artemis will also help NASA prepare for a trip to Mars in the 2030s. And the agency’s not alone with its Martian dreams: SpaceX and other private firms are eyeing colonization of the next planet out from the sun.

“It’s important to get a self-sustaining base on Mars,” says Musk, whose company is working on plans to get there. The Red Planet is “far enough away” that, in the event of a war, “it’s more likely” mankind can survive there than on the moon.

Musk hopes to ferry 1 million people to Mars by 2050 via 1,000 “Starships” a year, each with 100 people and materials to sustain them, for 10 years.

Such visions are ambitious. But space exploration and development come with big payback: They broaden knowledge, create possibilities for new applications and hold out enormous economic potential, with resources to be mined and space jobs to be filled.

And even if Musk’s worry about a humanity-ending war is excessive, having an off-Earth refuge may be handy for other reasons — such as an outbreak of something even worse than COVID-19.

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