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Why Mars is not a priority for space exploration

Why Mars is not a priority for space exploration
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NASA executed a perfect launch of the Mars InSight probe Saturday on top of an Atlas V rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base. After a six-and-a-half-month voyage, InSight will land on Mars and deploy a heat sensor and a seismograph to study the interior of the Red Planet for at least a Martian year, measuring Marsquakes and gaining an understanding of how rocky planets like Mars were formed and developed.

Mars InSight is a pure science mission that serves no other overarching policy objective than the quest for knowledge. There is certainly nothing wrong with science for its own sake. Great countries value science and are willing to spend a little money on pursuing it.

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The next expedition to Mars will be the Mars 2020 rover, an enhanced version of the Mars Curiosity, which is still rolling slowly across the Martian surface, ferreting out its secrets. After Mars 2020, some discussions are taking place about a robotic sample return mission, gathering Martian rocks and dirt and bringing them back to Earth for study.

 

The question arises, when will people go to Mars? Sending humans to Mars has been the stuff of both science fiction and NASA planning for decades. The hit film “The Martian” depicted an American astronaut marooned on Mars, struggling to survive until rescue could come. NASA wanted to send people to Mars as a follow-up to Apollo. Both Presidents Bush proposed Mars missions as part of their civil space policies. Even President Obama touted a program called the Journey to Mars, though evidence exists that it was an underfunded sham, a bright, shiny object designed to distract people from the fact that no coherent, realistic space policy existed.

Currently, American space efforts are firmly fixed on the Moon. Going back to the lunar surface is a practical, attainable goal that has multiple justifications, including science, commerce, inspiration, and diplomatic soft power.

The moon goal engages a number of partners, both international and commercial. A return to the moon can be accomplished relatively quickly, with the return on investment to follow soon, as well. As a bonus, access to water ice on the moon that can be refined into rocket fuel would greatly simplify going to Mars as well as lower its cost. 

However, recently Ars Technica ran a story that should provide a sobering reality check for dreams of humans going to Mars. Based on current government budgeting plans, a human expedition to Mars would be impossible for the foreseeable future.

The technological problems of getting a crew of human beings across 100 million miles of space, sustaining them on the Martian surface for a year, and then returning them safely to the Earth are daunting, to put it mildly. A lot of money will have to be spent overcoming these challenges, even if NASA were to partner with SpaceX, which is building the Big Falcon Rocket as a Mars ship. So far, the federal government is not prepared to spend the money to go to Mars and private business, right now, likely does not have enough resources to go it alone. 

Part of the problem is finding sufficient justification to send people to Mars. Science and adventure do not seem to cut it, thus far.

Visionaries such as Elon Musk and Robert Zubrin dream of establishing colonies on the Red Planet, to start a new branch of human civilization, thus ensuring its long-term survival. Mars colonies are a worthy goal, but not one that consumes the attention of government policymakers. A city on the Red Planet does not fulfill an immediate need for people who want to be reelected to office every few years. The settlement of Mars would be a project lasting decades.

So we return to the question, when are we going to Mars? The short answer is when we want to do it enough to make the effort and spend the money to do so. However, when desire and cost will align to bring Mars within reach is as yet unknown. 

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”