When asked about human missions to Mars at a recent campaign event, Donald TrumpDonald TrumpYoungkin ad features mother who pushed to have 'Beloved' banned from son's curriculum White House rejects latest Trump claim of executive privilege Democrats say GOP lawmakers implicated in Jan. 6 should be expelled MORE replied,
"Honestly, I think it's wonderful; I want to rebuild our infrastructure first, ok? I think it's wonderful."
This demonstrates a pattern often voiced by politicians and others, that we need to fix things here on Earth before “spending money in space.”
While infrastructure in the U.S. certainly needs improvement, if we followed this scenario, we wouldn't be landing humans on Mars this century, nor accomplishing other difficult feats. But the truth is, our infrastructure problem is vastly more expensive and complex than sending humans to Mars. Whether Donald Trump or other candidates support human missions to Mars, it is safe to assume that many of them adhere to common myths about such missions. This should not be surprising, the general public and many policymakers have a vastly inflated perspective of the cost of human space exploration.
The issue of space has come up several times on the campaign trail. When candidates are questioned, space exploration receives mixed answers. Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, and others have expressed support, while other candidates have expressed skepticism. Regardless of their current stance, Mars will never be a top priority for any of them. However, if the candidates understood that Mars exploration won’t cost much more than NASA’s current budget, they may view it differently. Actually, roughly the same level of funds will be spent on the space program whether we go to Mars or not. As such, this should not be a difficult decision for the next president - and it will not negatively impact any infrastructure programs. In fact, it will improve another area where America is currently challenged, the improvement of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. At the same time, it will offer inspiration and technological breakthroughs we can’t even imagine that will improve the economy.
In addition to inflated perceptions of cost, some believe that when budgets for space missions are proposed, this constitutes entirely new spending (on top of the current NASA budget projections). In reality, the majority of mission budgets come from funds already projected within the NASA budget - it's mostly a decision of how we decide to use these NASA funds.
This fall presents an ideal opportunity to engage the candidates. Mars exploration will be a hot topic as a result of the upcoming film adaption of Andrew Weir's novel, The Martian, that will arrive in theaters and generate a lot of discussion on the real prospects of human missions to Mars. Later in October, NASA will be presenting a workshop to select ten potential landing sites for human missions to Mars. The workshop is an important milestone for advocates of human exploration of Mars and will help connect the science fiction film, The Martian, with a very real potential future.
Obviously, the path to Mars is far more complicated than can be accomplished through publicity generated from a science fiction movie, but it would be unwise for the space exploration community not to seize the opportunity to highlight the difference between fact and fiction - and the fact is that Mars is an achievable goal within the next couple of decades.
The timing is perfect. We already have the policy building blocks for such a mission and there will be many developments over the next few years. Our next president does not have to reinvent the space program, but whoever may be elected has a remarkable opportunity to provide a clearer path forward - one that will land Americans on Mars. In short, the next president must not once again change US space policy, but must instead provide clarity and challenge the space community to show a clear path that leads to Mars in the near future.
The Martian may be science fiction, but it represents a potential near-term future. Human missions to Mars could be taking place on the 2030s if we find the political courage to sustain the program for that period of time. As the 2016 Presidential campaign begins to intensify, we are in a strong position to dispel the myths that have prevented such missions from gaining any momentum for decades and to once again open the realm of technical innovation not seen since the days of Apollo.
Carberry is CEO of Explore Mars. Ortner is director of DC Operations for Explore Mars.