Why Mars? Why Now?

Forty years ago, Apollo astronauts took humanity's first baby step into the cosmos. It's time to take the next one

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?

Are we going to go to Mars or not? Now would be a good time to decide. Are you listening, President Obama?

Yes, the president has lots of things on his mind. But that’s true of any president, anytime. And the fact is, the U.S. government is already spending billions of dollars a year on a space program that has a trip to Mars as its ultimate but inadequately funded and too-far-off-to-get-excited-about goal.

The signs of drift are accumulating. In April during a speech before the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, Obama spoke reverentially about the heady days of the Apollo program. But he did so not to galvanize his audience about the importance of space exploration but rather to rally them to the cause of developing alternative energy technologies. Not once in his eloquent speech did he mention the future of human spaceflight.

As of this writing, Obama has yet to appoint a new administrator for NASA, a job that Michael Griffin left in January (the official explanation for the delay is that the job at the top of the troubled agency has been tough to fill). Whoever takes the spot will need to convince lawmakers to spend billions, on top of the billions that have already been spent, to develop a new launch vehicle, called Ares I, for a return to the moon. The moon trip would be the first stage of NASA’s Constellation program, which aims for a manned Mars mission sometime after 2030. But Congress doesn’t seem terribly interested in Mars. It cut NASA’s proposed budget increases repeatedly in the last years of the Bush administration. [Update: On 23 May, President Obama nominated former astronaut Charles F. Bolden, Jr. as the next head of NASA.]

Obama came into the Oval Office with thoughtful and detailed positions about almost everything, it would seem—except manned spaceflight. He’s now asked Norm Augustine, IEEE Life Fellow and former chairman of Lockheed Martin, to head a panel that is expected, by August, to offer an opinion about whether NASA’s human spaceflight efforts are worth continuing or whether the emphasis should be shifted to unmanned exploration. To the extent that the panel evaluates the controversial Ares I design, which many people both inside and outside the space agency contend has major flaws, the review may accomplish something important. But on the manned-versus-unmanned issue—and with all due respect to Dr. Augustine, a longtime friend of this magazine—you have to wonder what he and his panel will uncover that countless other panels, study groups, consultants, think tanks, academics, and assorted pundits have not already concluded about the issue over the past 50 years.

This isn’t your typical irrelevant policy dustup. As you may have heard, the space shuttle will be retired next year. And the Ares I won’t be ready to fly until at least 2014. The upshot is that the United States, one of the two original space powerhouses and still the source of 80 percent of the world’s noncommercial funding for space, will have no way to get even as far as the International Space Station without hitching a ride on a wheezing Russian Soyuz vehicle.

For a man of celebrated vision and conviction, President Obama is puzzlingly lax on space. Speaking on ”The Tonight Show” on 19 March, he told Jay Leno: ”A smart kid coming out of school—instead of wanting to be an investment banker, we need them to decide they want to be an engineer.” Well, we couldn’t agree more, Mr. President. But surely you realize that young people don’t go into engineering because you want them to. They go into engineering because they’ve had their imaginations fired by a grand, awe-inspiring challenge. A challenge like going to Mars, for example.

The United States is not alone in its crisis of confidence. Other countries’ space programs seem to be struggling with a perceived lack of interest in manned space exploration, a fear of human casualties, and a misguided belief that we must solve all our terrestrial problems before doing anything ambitious in space. Governments worldwide have readily bailed out banks and other scandalously mismanaged institutions, and yet they don’t want to pay for space. In Europe and Japan, human missions have taken a backseat to robotic probes. Even in China and India, where space travel is still seen as an analogue of national esteem and domestic security, work goes forward in fits and starts. As it does in other endeavors, the world looks to the United States for leadership in this area, and it finds none.

You can’t argue for human space exploration solely on economic grounds, especially not short-term ones. But there is no denying that a vigorous, focused, goal-oriented space program would bring jobs to all sorts of technical fields and industries, and open the spigots of technological innovation. In the end, though, it will be the cultural and psychic advances that will matter most.

Instead of looking inward, tethered to our computers and iPhones and thousand-channel big-screen TVs, we could start to look outward again. We and our children could gaze into the night sky and remember that the universe is very large and our understanding of it very small. Traveling to new countries on our own planet can be life-altering. Imagine what it will be like for human civilization to push its horizon out into the solar system.

It’s been 400 years since Galileo first peered through his telescope. It’s been 40 years since Apollo 11 took humanity’s first baby step into the cosmos. Now it’s time to take the next one.

For more articles, go to Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?

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