When will we finally set foot on Mars?
Ever since the 1960s, when we took the initial steps to free ourselves from the gravity well of Earth, we have been hearing phrases such as, “Mars is our horizon destination,” “Why the hurry to Mars?” and “Twenty years from now, humans may be walking on Mars!”
But “twenty years from now” has come and gone several times and we don’t seem any closer to the “horizon destination.” When will we finally set foot on Mars?
There used to be some basis and justification for such vague statements, given that launch and crew support systems were still years away from becoming operational.
But that is no longer true. Today we are in a far better position to send humans to Mars than ever before. Within a few months, NASA’s Artemis 1 mission is scheduled to launch the Space Launch System (SLS) with its Orion crew vehicle (without crew on this test mission) to orbit the Moon and perform all key mission aspects to return humans to the lunar vicinity, and SpaceX’s Starship will attempt its first orbital flight soon.
Meanwhile, private suborbital flights (Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin) and private orbital flights (such as the Inspiration4 mission) are accelerating at an impressive pace.
Mars is also no longer the exclusive domain of superpowers and major industrial companies. Many emerging nations, and small, medium and large companies (and organizations) around the world are investing their own efforts and funds to participate in this incredible venture, and to help solve the innumerable challenges and innovations needed not only to enable long-term Mars/space exploration but also to benefit life on Earth and create potential new markets.
There is reason for optimism within the political sphere as well. Human missions to the Moon and Mars have enjoyed consistent and strong bipartisan support throughout multiple administrations and changes in control of Congress. Despite this alignment of political support and technological advancement, our path going forward to Mars still seems vague and insufficiently defined.
The Biden administration, Congress, NASA and commercial and international partners should take advantage of this historic alignment of technology and support by reaffirming and further delineating the path that will return us to the Moon in the mid-2020s and send humans to the surface of Mars by the mid-2030s.
After over 18 months of worldwide upheaval and social isolation resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, people crave optimistic, ambitious, affordable and achievable programs that can help us overcome the negativity and division that hinders us. A clearly defined humans to Mars program that accomplishes these goals can stimulate national morale and international cooperation in significant and incalculable ways.
Despite popular misconceptions, such a program can be achieved affordably, costing only a small percentage of the costs of social programs, the military or the proposed infrastructure bill. Indeed, NASA’s entire annual budget accounts for less than half of 1 percent of the overall federal budget. A relatively modest increase in NASA’s budget would enable us to move out into the solar system by developing the few additional technologies that remain unproven — such as large payload landing systems and Mars transfer habitats.
Some pundits will counter that we should not set firm timelines for landing humans on Mars. After all, the argument goes, if we set a specific target date, we may very well miss that self-imposed deadline. Not meeting such a deadline may very well occur, but this is not a valid reason for failing to establish ambitious goals. Even if we ultimately are not able to land crew members on the surface of Mars by the mid-2030s, we will almost certainly be far more advanced in reaching that goal than we would otherwise have been.
Timelines and deadlines exist for a reason. They help to motivate and maintain momentum and productivity, as occurs every day in the commercial sector and succeeded brilliantly during the Apollo Program of the 1960s.
There are few topics of public discourse with such broad-based support, and with the potential to heal many of the social and political divisions we have experienced over the past several years, as our space program and the efforts of all humanity to reach the Red Planet.
Chris Carberry is CEO of Explore Mars, Inc. and author of the book “Alcohol in Space: Past, Present, Future.” Rick Zucker is vice president, policy for Explore Mars, Inc.
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