In just the past week, Congress has introduced a bill directing NASA to put a manned base on the moon by 2022, and SpaceX founder Elon Musk has said that he'll be sending humans to Mars in a little as 10 years. But can it happen, and do we even want it to?
The "Reasserting American Leadership in Space Act" would tell NASA to "develop a sustained human presence on the moon in order to promote exploration, commerce, science and United States preeminence in space as a stepping stone for the future exploration of Mars and other destinations," all by 2022. That sounds good in theory, but the bill basically just says, "Hey, go do this," without recognizing that it may be both a technologically and fiscally impossible task for NASA to accomplish within that time frame.
Private industry is rapidly catching up to NASA. In the next ten years especially, the space agency seems likely to get eclipsed after the impending retirement of the space shuttle. SpaceX might have the credentials to back up its space exploration plans, which would put humans on Mars in a decade if everything goes well. That's a big if, though, since SpaceX still has a lot of work to do to get its Falcon heavy-lift rocket operational by 2012.