America’s human spaceflight program is adrift. The space shuttle has made its final flight, and the Obama administration has no coherent plan what to do next. Instead, it has proposed that the United States waste the next decade spending $100 billion to support a goalless human spaceflight effort that goes nowhere and accomplishes nothing. In the face of a mounting imperative to find ways to cut the federal deficit, this has set up the nation’s space program for the ax.
In order for NASA’s human-exploration effort to be defensible, it needs a concrete goal and one that is truly worth pursuing. That goal should be sending humans to Mars.
As a result of a string of successful probes sent to the Red Planet over the past 15 years, we know for certain that Mars was once a warm and wet planet and continued to have an active hydrosphere for a period on the order of a billion years – a span five times as long as the time it took for life to appear on Earth after there was liquid water here. Findings released by NASA last week indicate that underground water seeps are reaching the surface of the Red Planet periodically. Thus, if the theory is correct that life is a natural phenomenon emerging from chemistry wherever there is liquid water, various minerals and a sufficient period of time, life must have appeared on Mars and may still be there.
If we go to Mars and find fossils of past life on its surface, we will have good reason to believe we are not alone in the universe. If we send human explorers, who can erect drilling rigs that can reach underground water where Martian life may well persist, we will be able to examine it. By doing so, we will be able to determine whether life on Earth is the pattern for all life everywhere or, alternatively, whether we are simply one esoteric example of a far vaster and more interesting tapestry. These things truly are worth finding out.
Furthermore, Mars is a bracing positive challenge that our society needs. Nations, like people, thrive on challenge and decay without it. A humans-to-Mars program would be an invitation to adventure to every young person in the country, sending out the powerful clarion call: “Learn your science, and you can take part in pioneering a new world.” In return for such a challenge, we would get millions of young scientists, engineers, inventors and medical researchers, making technological innovations that create new industries, find new cures, strengthen national defense and increase national income to an extent that utterly dwarfs the expenditures of the Mars program.
But the most important reason to go to Mars is the doorway it opens to the future. Uniquely among the extraterrestrial bodies of the inner solar system, Mars is endowed with all the resources needed to support not only life, but the development of a technological civilization. For our generation and those that will follow, Mars is the New World. We should not shun its challenge.
We’re ready. Despite its greater distance, we are much better prepared today to send humans to Mars than we were to send men to the moon in 1961, when President Kennedy started the Apollo program – and we were there eight years later. Contrary to those seeking indefinite delay of any commitment, future-fantasy spaceships are not needed to send humans to Mars. The primary real requirement is a heavy-lift booster with a capability similar to that of the Saturn V launch vehicle employed in the 1960s. This is something we fully understand how to create.
The issue is not money. The issue is leadership. NASA’s average Apollo-era (1961-73) budget, adjusted for inflation, was about $19 billion a year in today’s dollars, just 5 percent more than the agency’s current budget. Yet the NASA of the ‘60s accomplished 100 times more because it had a mission with a deadline and was forced to develop an efficient plan to achieve that mission. If NASA were given that kind of direction, we could have humans on Mars within a decade. If not, as the rudderless agency continues to drift into the coming fiscal tsunami, we may soon end up with no human spaceflight program.
Some may say, why not just let it sink? Aren’t there more vital things to salvage from the budget shipwreck? Such thoughts, however, would be wrong. The government fiscal catastrophe was not caused by NASA but by an administration with no interest in it. Acceptance of the destruction of the space program simply amounts to acceptance of American decline. For all its flaws, NASA is one of the ornaments of our age. The United States comprises 4 percent of the world’s population yet has been responsible for 100 percent of the people who have walked on the moon, 100 percent of the rovers that have wheeled on Mars and 100 percent of the probes that have visited Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus or Neptune. Our time will be remembered because this is when humankind first set sail for other worlds. Our nation should be remembered as the people who opened the way.
Robert Zubrin, president of Pioneer Astronautics and of the Mars Society (www.marssociety.org). An updated edition of his book The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must, has just been published by the Free Press.