The greatest adventure in human history is ending in its infancy. NASA’s human spaceflight program, a signature achievement of American civilization, is dying. The program was conceived during the bleak days following Russia’s launch of Sputnik in 1957, and then was energized by President John F. Kennedy’s proposal in 1961 to put astronauts on the Moon by decade’s end. NASA succeeded, landing Neil Armstrong and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin on the lunar surface only 98 months after Kennedy inspired the nation with his vision.
If you grew up during that decade (as I did) and heard the bold rhetoric about new frontiers and carrying freedom’s message into the cosmos, you couldn’t help but be moved. America had a sense of mission back then that is largely missing from political discourse today, and the human spaceflight program epitomized the hopes of a new generation for the future. It is unsettling to see how our confidence has shriveled during the intervening years, both at NASA and in the broader political culture. At NASA, the Space Shuttle program is about to shut down and the Constellation program conceived to replace it with manned missions to the Moon and Mars has been canceled by the Obama Administration. What remains of the human spaceflight program looks unlikely to survive an era of budget cutting and cultural pessimism.
There is only one way that the human spaceflight program can be rescued from the decaying orbit into which it was launched by the Challenger disaster in 1986: NASA must define a goal for the program that justifies the vast expenditures required and inspires the nation in the same way President Kennedy did in 1961. Going back to the Moon or visiting an asteroid won’t do the trick. Only a series of manned missions to Mars will. Our astronauts will need to go to other places before they attempt a landing on the Martian surface, but if those missions aren’t justified as initial steps in a long-term plan to visit the Red Planet, then they aren’t going to happen. To put it bluntly, the public doesn’t care about spending hundreds of billions of dollars to go someplace we already went a generation ago. It needs a new destination and a new rationale to convince it that NASA’s human spaceflight program still makes sense.
A series of missions to Mars answers the mail because the Red Planet is by far the most Earth-like place in the reachable universe beyond our own world. It has water. It has sunlight. It has atmosphere. It has seasons. In fact, it probably has everything required to support a self-sustaining human colony someday — unlike the other planets, or the Moon, or an asteroid. And it also has a host of lessons to teach us about the fate of our own planet as the solar system evolves, because it is clear that the Martian environment has changed greatly over time. Mars was once a warmer, wetter place, perhaps a place hosting life. It may still host life today, although conditions seem to have grown more hostile. But we’ll never know unless we put men and women on the Martian surface for an extended period to investigate.
This month, the Lexington Institute is releasing a report entitled Human Spaceflight: Mars is the Destination that Matters. It explains the scientific reasons why NASA should focus the human spaceflight program on a series of manned missions to Mars two decades from now, and arrange lesser missions to support that ultimate goal. It also argues that if NASA manages its programs carefully, it can put astronauts on Mars in a little over twice the time it took to get to the Moon for no more money than it was already planning to spend on human spaceflight. And it warns that if Mars is not the goal, then there won’t be any human spaceflight program 20 years from now, because America has too many other pressing needs to be spending several hundred billion dollars on visiting an asteroid with no greater purpose in mind. What NASA’s human spaceflight program needs right now is a vision of the future tied to the politics of the present — a vision that can help restore the sense of purpose we as a people have lost.
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