One of the greatest achievements in history, NASA’s human spaceflight program, is dying. With the best of intentions, the Obama Administration has put the astronaut program on a path that leads nowhere, and therefore will not be able to sustain political support. There is a better way. For the same amount of money NASA plans to spend on a series of disconnected initiatives, the White House can place mankind in a trajectory that leads to a human landing on Mars, and a permanent colony after that.
It will take a long time, because budgets are limited and the technology to put people on the Red Planet does not yet fully exist. But Mars is the one goal that can justify the kind of expenditures required to maintain a human spaceflight program over the long haul. Not only will it keep the highly skilled workforce of NASA’s space centers employed on a major national mission for decades to come — with each center contributing specialized pieces to the overall effort — but it will define all the intermediate missions required to prepare for the ultimate goal.
Why Mars? Well, setting aside the romantic appeal of going to a place that has captivated the human imagination since antiquity, Mars is the most Earth-like place beyond the Earth in the known universe. It has the potential to sustain life as we know it in a way that Venus or Jupiter could not. Its surface gravity is about 38 percent that of the Earth. It has enough water to fill the Great Lakes (not counting what may lie below the surface). It has sufficient sunlight to periodically melt the water. It has an atmosphere that can be processed to produce oxygen. And there is enough methane present in that atmosphere to make scientists suspect life may already be present on the planet.
Clearly, Mars is a planet from which we could learn a great deal — including lessons about how our own planet may evolve. But research can be conducted much more efficiently if human beings are there, rather than many millions of miles away. They don’t necessarily have to be on the surface — robotic vehicles can be controlled very effectively by astronauts on one of the Martian moons — but in the end, there is no substitute for being there. Indeed, the day may come when humans travel to Mars and elect to stay, because our efforts to make it habitable have been successful.
For now, though, it is challenging enough simply to get a single crew to the Red Planet and back. That could be done in 20 years if the government’s finances were as sound as when President Kennedy committed to a Moon landing in 1961 (which was accomplished in less than a hundred months). But because federal finances are deeply in deficit today, the plan for a Mars landing must be stretched out to a point where it fits within the existing NASA budget. That means conducting a series of increasingly demanding missions that lead to the Moon, to more distant asteroids, and then on to Mars — with each mission contributing more to our understanding of how humans will fare during long periods in space, and how technologies mesh to make more challenging missions feasible.
The plan can speed up or slow down as necessary to accommodate fiscal realities. But the important thing is to establish a goal that is sustainable, one which can help organize and prioritize all the other things the human spaceflight program must do. If the Obama Administration can grasp the logic of making Mars the goal, then it may create a legacy that history will still recall a thousand years hence.