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Las Vegas odds on who will set foot on Mars first are totally nuts

Oddsmakers apply statistical science to pick sports winners, but CNET's Eric Mack says one handicapper seems to have ignored the stats when picking the team of scientists to win the race to Mars.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Expertise Solar, solar storage, space, science, climate change, deregulated energy, DIY solar panels, DIY off-grid life projects. CNET's "Living off the Grid" series. https://www.cnet.com/feature/home/energy-and-utilities/living-off-the-grid/ Credentials
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Eric Mack
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Will NASA land the first boots on Martian ground? The odds say no. NASA

I don't know much about betting, but I'm starting to think maybe the oddsmakers in Las Vegas should stick to sports and leave space to the nerds. In the October 2015 issue of Popular Mechanics, the magazine got sports handicapper Raphael Esparza of Doc's Sports Service to come up with some odds on who will be the first to put a human on Mars. To my eyes, the resulting odds are...odd.

The way Esparza figures it, SpaceX and Elon Musk have the best shot at getting to the Red Planet first because "they have the desire and the funds" -- he gives Musk 5-to-1 odds of winning the race to Mars. What makes this a wacky set of odds is that he puts Russia getting there first at 60-to-1, NASA at 80-to-1, China at 100-to-1 and the European Space Agency at 300-to-1.

But not only does Esparza believe that SpaceX -- with its revenues largely derived from NASA -- is over 10 times more likely to get to Mars first than any of the major, publicly funded space programs, he also thinks Mars One has a much better shot at winning the race.

Remember Mars One? The controversial nonprofit effort to send volunteer astronauts on a one-way trip to Mars failed to meet its initial crowdfunding goal and was the subject of a harsh critique that suggested its astronauts would start asphyxiating on Mars after just two months. Yet, somehow it is a 15-to-1 bet.

He also likes the odds of Inspiration Mars, Dennis Tito's plan to fly by Mars in a few years, but he acknowledges that perhaps the project shouldn't count, because it has no plans to actually touch down on the surface. Also included is the Mars Society's Mars Direct plan, which dates back to 1990 and is a weird inclusion on the list as it would likely require a partner like SpaceX or NASA to get off the ground.

In short, Esparza is saying that SpaceX and newcomer Mars One have a significantly better chance of sending someone to Mars first than agencies that have already put men on the Moon, robots on Mars and a probe on a speeding comet.

It's true that SpaceX has a pretty impressive track record of accomplishment, but CEO Elon Musk also has a reputation as a master of hype -- (this is also a guy who goes on television and talks about nuking Mars to jump-start a climate). Launching the first commercial SpaceX rocket took several years longer than he originally hoped, according to his recent best-selling biography. So when he talks about putting people on Mars in just around a decade from now, take it with a grain of salt from the asteroid belt.

To be fair, Esparza notes that NASA would be his first choice if not for the constant potential for future budget cuts. This is a reasonable hedge, and NASA has responded with a relentless hype campaign of its own to build support for its planned "Journey to Mars" in the 2030s using social media, cross-promotion with the new movie " The Martian" and generally trying to build excitement around all things Mars, from the discovery of flowing water there to its plan to capture an asteroid to use as a sort of training ground for getting to the Red Planet later.

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Still, NASA's budget will remain largely a political football to be kicked around by the powers-that-be for the foreseeable future. But it's weird for Esparza to so heavily favor SpaceX when the company is actually worth less than NASA's current budget, and a huge chunk of SpaceX revenues come from billion-dollar NASA contracts. If NASA's budget gets chopped, it's likely that will trickle down to SpaceX.

If I had to bet on who will get boots on the ground on Mars first, I think I'd go with the longest track record and NASA, but some sort of partnership involving SpaceX and NASA also makes a lot of sense. Right now, though, I don't see SpaceX going it totally alone.

Then again, given the recent discoveries on Mars and Disney's ownership of the Star Wars franchise, it might not be so crazy to imagine that our first Martian colony will take the form of a space-themed Disney water park, complete with long lines to ride the "Pirates of the Valles Marineris" ride. I'd sure like to see the odds on that one.