The successful test of the Orion capsule on December 5 generated a surge of excitement around the country. When the main parachutes deployed, it rekindled a sense of pride and excitement about the future that hasn't been felt for a long time. 

Of course, Orion wasn’t carrying astronauts and won't for a few years, but it represented the beginning of a new adventure in space for the public - something our country and the world have missed for years.  The reaction wasn't entirely favorable, however.  There were complaints about how long it took to build Orion and how much it cost.  Perhaps the most curious criticism was whether NASA should be building Mars hardware when it doesn't intend on landing humans on Mars until the 2030s.   

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It's very true that nobody knows exactly what hardware will be used when humans finally set foot on Mars.  A future iteration of Orion will likely be part of that mission - or the missions may depend on an entirely different set of architecture components. And if NASA were not planning on going anywhere else prior to landing humans on Mars in the 2030s, that criticism would be justified. However, testing hardware, like Orion and other systems, is integral to and necessary for any such mission.  In order for the Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) now being formulated by NASA, or potential alternate missions, to take place in the early 2020s, we need to be building and testing hardware now.  If we plan to visit other locations prior to landing humans on Mars, we also need to be developing hardware. Unless we start now, we'll never get to the stage where we can start learning how to operate in deep space and start building Mars transit and landing vehicles and other key components.  There is a fatal flaw in the argument that we need to wait until we know more before we start – namely that you can never know enough, so you never will start.

To be clear, our road to Mars will not be like the Apollo Program. It will unquestionably take new ways of thinking and new procedures, as well as partnerships between government, industry/commercial players, and international partners.  But it is impossible to create a program that everyone likes.  The trick is to create one that is far more efficient than what has preceded it and is also sustainable from a budgetary and political perspective.  The 'all or nothing' mentality hasn’t worked well in Congress and it surely won’t work in space exploration. It will likely be counterproductive for all involved and for our mutual goal – landing humans on the surface of Mars.
 

If private entities can find a way to fund human missions to Mars independent of the federal budget or can prove out new architecture concepts, that would be a tremendous achievement that we truly hope will one day occur. However, the most important thing today is to start the challenging path to Mars.  If, instead, we wait for everyone to agree on all aspects of the mission, we will never begin to move forward. 

NASA and its partners do need to provide more clarity to the public and other stakeholders on how its current hardware and other programs will lead us to Mars. An upcoming report from the Mars Affordability and Sustainability working group (which report will be thoroughly discussed at the 2015 Humans to Mars Summit in May) will call for NASA and other space interests to do a better job of clarifying our long and short term goals and why they are important.  One thing is certain – it really felt good to see an American spacecraft launched on an American rocket and to again see that distant view of Earth through the viewport of a vehicle intended to fly humansbeyond low Earth orbit.  True, it was one small step, but that one small step started that journey to Mars.  And the journey must continue. 

Carberry is executive director of Explore Mars, Inc. and Cassady is a member of the Board of Directors of Explore Mars, Inc.