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NASA bets big on private sector to put humans on Mars

NASA will continue tapping the private sector to fund space exploration efforts under President Donald Trump, a continuation in policy that began under former President George W. Bush.

"Public-private partnerships are the future of space exploration," Dava Newman, a former NASA deputy administrator who resigned before Trump took office, told CNBC on Tuesday. "I call it the new NASA."

In total, 22 companies — all American — have won contracts with the agency across a diverse range of sectors, from in-space manufacturing to engine development.

Boeing and Elon Musk's SpaceX will be delivering NASA astronauts to international space stations, while Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX will transport NASA cargo to space stations, said Newman, who is now chair of the Apollo Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

NASA is a part of the U.S. government but remains independent while still receiving federal funds — a structure originally conceived by McKinsey & Co. In the 1950s, the management consultancy suggested the idea of a separate government office dedicated to space research.

In this handout provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), SpaceXs Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft lift off from Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for their eighth official Commercial Resupply (CRS) mission on April 8, 2016 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
NASA | Getty Images
In this handout provided by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), SpaceXs Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft lift off from Launch Complex 40 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station for their eighth official Commercial Resupply (CRS) mission on April 8, 2016 in Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Other countries have also fixed their sights on the private sector. Last year, the Indian Space Research Organisation invited firms to build a full spacecraft as Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks to open up the country's satellite manufacturing industry, according to local news.

One specific goal of NASA's public-private partnerships is putting humans on Mars by the 2030s, a journey that's already underway.

A robotic rover that's been exploring Mars since 2012 has helped confirm evidence that water once flowed on the red planet, suggesting the existence of streams and lakes billions of years ago. NASA intends to launch another rover in July 2020.

President Barack Obama made no apologies for curbing the agency's exploration ambitions, and it's not yet clear how NASA will be impacted under Trump, who has said little on space exploration.

Some strategists believe the real estate billionaire will be keen to push property development on the moon, a scenario that Newman believes will spark excitement "in the next decade."

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Correction: This story was revised to correct that the commercial space exploration program began under President George W. Bush.