What does all this have to do with sending astronauts to Mars? For one, such an interplanetary mission will be extremely expensive, likely measured in trillions rather than hundreds of billions of dollars, Caceres says. One way to enable such a mission is to reduce the cost of space access, spurring economic activity in orbit and beyond which in turn will help create economies of scale that drive costs down further, a point to which Musk has spoken at length.
SpaceX has already succeeded in this regard, cutting the average cost of launch in half with its $62 million Falcon 9 rocket and forcing others in the industry like United Launch Alliance to slash their own prices while also investing in newer, less-expensive launch technologies. If savings from its reusable rocket technology begin to manifest themselves as expected, Caceres says, "theoretically SpaceX could be launching dozens of times per year and at prices maybe one-fourth their competitors'."
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While continuing to drive down cost, SpaceX can also work toward its Mars ambitions by honing technologies and capabilities that position the company to assume a larger workload with its partners in government. In the near-term, two such technologies/capabilities to watch are the company's test of its far more powerful Falcon Heavy rocket later this year and its first crewed missions to the International Space Station aboard its Dragon crew capsule, likely beginning in 2018.
If SpaceX can successfully demonstrate both of those capabilities, Caceres predicts that NASA will come under Congressional pressure to explain why it needs to continue pouring money into the $18 billion Space Launch System, NASA's own super heavy-lift rocket and space capsule. If Congress decides NASA doesn't need to keep funding the Space Launch System, SpaceX would arguably be the best-positioned commercial company to step into its place, making it the de facto launch partner for any federally-funded future Mars mission.
"The name of the game these days is public-private partnerships, because it's clear now that unless Congress dramatically increases NASA's annual budget of just under $19 billion a year, NASA cannot come close to doing the things that it would like to do or that Congress would like it to do," Caceres says. "So you need to find a way to partner with companies that have the technology, the ambition, and the vision, and the only company like that out there frankly is SpaceX."
"I think SpaceX arguably is positioning itself to be the partner of choice for any federally funded or internationally-backed Mars mission," Bryce Space and Technology's Christensen says.
That could change as competitors like United Launch Alliance and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin bring new rockets and new competition into the commercial launch market at the end of the decade. But with an enviable head start, rapidly growing market share, and an increasingly lucrative launch services business bankrolling SpaceX's ambitions—not to mention a President with a penchant for the grandiose in the White House—Musk's optimism surrounding a future manned Mars mission seems less extreme than it did last year.
While it may happen during Trump's presidency, there's no indication that Musk and company will stop pushing for it—potentially dragging NASA and the U.S. government along with them if necessary, Caceres says.
"There doesn't seem to be anything they're not willing to tackle when it comes to space," he says. "They're not just going to sit back and get a bunch of contracts. That's too boring for Elon Musk."
—By Clay Dillow, special to CNBC.com