Let’s get humans to Mars in the 2030s

Let’s get humans to Mars in the 2030s
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Something amazing has occurred. Over the past several years, the United States has embraced the concept of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s.

Momentum for achieving this goal began to build when the Mars Curiosity Rover landed on the Martian surface in 2012, and it ha steadily grown in the years since. In fact, today national support for sending humans to Mars is not only broad-based but it has also reached historic levels.

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Recent public opinion polls have, on multiple occasions, reflected consistently high levels of support. The 2013 Mars Generation National Opinion Poll found that, when informed that NASA accounts for less than half a percent of the federal budget, over 70 percent of Americans supported human missions to Mars.

Similarly, in 2016, the National Opinion Poll on Mars, Robotics and Exploration showed that, even when the poll participants were given no data on NASA budget figures, over 60 percent of Americans supported such missions.

This strong public support has not escaped Hollywood’s notice. Numerous Mars related projects have been produced over the past few years, including “The Martian,” “The Space between Us,” the National Geographic series “Mars,” and many others.

Hollywood’s fascination with Mars is not diminishing over time either. National Geographic has ordered a second season for its “Mars” series, and Hulu is producing a series, “The First,” starring Sean Penn, which focuses on the first settlers on Mars. Another film, “Seat 25,” which depicts a woman who is selected for a one-way trip to Mars, has also been making the film festival rounds.

This enthusiast embrace of Mars has not been restricted to the general public and Hollywood. In Washington, D.C., our elected officials have shown that, at least when it comes to space, they are still capable of bi-partisanship.

In early 2017, both chambers of Congress overwhelmingly passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, followed by President Trump signing the bill into law. This act has the most comprehensive language in support of human missions to Mars ever to be seen in a piece of American legislation, including specifically calling for human missions to Mars in the 2030s. Indeed, during a recent hearing of the House Space Subcommittee, members of the United States House of Representatives called for human missions to Mars in the early 2030s.

Such unity, such a mandate, for any space exploration goal has not been seen in the United States for decades, and it would be extremely shortsighted to fail to harness that momentum.

Should the Moon play a role in getting humans to Mars? Absolutely. The real question is how can we utilize the Moon in such a manner that it will be an asset to getting humans to Mars — but not delay Mars missions by a decade or more?

Most mission architecture plans in recent years have called for precursor missions in cis-lunar space, mostly in lunar orbit. This is reflected in NASA’s recent call to build the Deep Space Gateway that is intended to serve as an interim step on the path to Mars, to give us experience beyond Low Earth Orbit and to test vital systems.

However, it is essential that this facility does not become “the” destination rather than a waystation. The Deep Space Gateway must remain the latter, a tool to be used to prepare for missions to Mars. It must not become an end in itself, one that becomes so complex, so large, and so expensive that it delays or even prevents the accomplishment of the very goal that it is intended to enable, which is sending humans to Mars.

Ideally, the Deep Space Gateway should be made available to commercial or international entities that desire to study the Moon from nearby or have viable business plans that justify their own investment in lunar surface operations. If entrepreneurs and/or international space agencies can accomplish that, it would be a great achievement. That said, the primary focus of this facility for NASA should be directed at getting humans to Mars in the 2030s. This is a realistic goal, but decisions need to be made and appropriate budgets provided to meet these ambitions.

It is time that the United States truly commits to the human exploration of the solar system. If we make the right decisions, a U.S. led initiative, partnering with international governments and the commercial sector, will result in humanity establishing itself on the surfaces of both the Moon and Mars within the next two decades.

Rick Zucker is vice president for policy and Chris Carberry is CEO for Explore Mars, Inc., a nonprofit space advocacy group.