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.