Sir Richard Branson recently announced that he is "determined" to establish a human population on Mars. Branson is well known for his virgin brand record stores, phone service, Virgin airways and of course Virgin Galactic an upcoming space tourism venture.
|Mars as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope|
Branson is also known for his relaxed yet driven style, and although I would prefer to see NASA or the ESA (but really NASA) establish the first Mars settlement, if we can see an increase in our technological knowledge or capabilities due to Branson's Mars endeavors it would be better than no advancement at all.
At a point in history where NASA's budget is shrinking steadily, an investment by the private sector is better than no investment. However what private sector companies develop, they own. They do not have to share their technology, and they can charge whatever price they wish. When the public sector (NASA, ESA, National Science Foundation, etc) develop a technology it is available freely to the public to be built upon. New companies and in some cases whole new industries are created.
Photo by David Shankbone
Science and scientists who traditionally had worked in the public sphere were able to share and build on ideas working cooperatively and arriving at solutions faster than they would be able to alone. Private entities wish to keep information secret, or wish to patent it to protect their investment. This in and of itself is not evil or wrong, obviously who wouldn't want to protect their investment, but generally this can slow down formation of new theories and technologies.
So, Sir Richard Branson, Good luck! I hope you are able to open a luxury resort on Mars, I just hope Penny4NASA and citizen support for our public space program allows NASA to beat you there.