Commentary | Harnessing Public Support for Mars Exploration
The Curiosity rover and other similar missions have fueled a growing level of enthusiasm regarding Mars exploration. This enthusiasm is clearly illustrated by a recent national poll that Explore Mars commissioned (with Boeing and Phillips & Co.). Americans are very optimistic and believe that we will have a human crew on Mars by 2033 and that despite our current budgetary crisis NASA’s budget should be increased. This is good news for the space exploration community and good news for the country as a whole.
To be clear, confidence in a human mission to Mars 20 years in the future isn’t “hopelessly optimistic” as some pundits have claimed. It is a goal well within our ability to achieve — and with time to spare. The primary obstacles to achieving it are political and to a lesser degree budgetary. In our current world, we know that these are not insignificant obstacles, but they are largely self-inflicted — rather than obstacles based on engineering, American industrial prowess, or science. The real problem is we are constantly lowering expectations of what can be achieved and what we should expect from our elected officials.
Within the space community, there is far more unity that Mars is the ultimate goal than has been seen in years. Most disagreements tend to be centered on architecture options or intermediate destinations.
There has also been an additional cause for increased interest in Mars exploration. Dennis Tito, the first space tourist, recently announced a plan for a crew of two people to launch on a mission in early 2018 that will fly within 100 miles of Mars and return to Earth. He believes this 17-month Inspiration Mars mission, which he calls “A Mission for America,” is a risk worth taking. While Tito is not going on the mission himself, he is personally funding the initial phases of the mission and faces monetary risk, not to mention a tremendous risk to his reputation. His human crew will face physical risk, but a risk they will knowingly accept for the chance of historical immortality and to set the groundwork for future human footprints on Mars.
Opinions vary wildly concerning whether Tito and the Inspiration Mars team will be successful in their bold mission concept, but their recent announcement is extremely encouraging. They hope to push the boundaries of what is possible from aerospace engineering, human factors and life support capabilities. Even if they don’t succeed in the overall mission, they can teach us a lesson about taking risks. They are willing to stand up for America and say, “We can do this,” daring to challenge entrenched cynicism that always says, “No you can’t.” Americans are clearly eager for the nation to pursue great things again and show that we are not afraid of the future.
It seems unconscionable that as a nation we are cautious almost to the point of paralysis with regards to risking the lives of willing astronauts, yet we regularly put soldiers into harm’s way to achieve national security goals. Those soldiers understand that some things — some goals — are worth risking your life for. Most past and present astronauts — and millions of others around the world — would willingly risk their lives to achieve advancements of humanity in space. The Apollo astronauts knew this. Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the Moon, believed he and Neil Armstrong had only a 50-50 chance of success. In addition, the technological innovation, industrial breakthroughs and human inspiration make the risks worth it. This was seen during the days of the Apollo program and can be expected to be seen in a new American space program that truly inspires the imagination. Mars beckons, and we should go!
Such a mission can serve as that rare example of bipartisanship and unity. If our leaders can work together on establishing a clear path forward in space exploration, perhaps it can lead to other areas of cooperation. There are many strong reasons for a human mission to Mars, but if it could help stimulate bipartisan cooperation, that would be a valuable benefit in itself.
The Humans to Mars Summit May 6-8 in Washington will be focusing on these issues. This event is intended to highlight the opportunities and obstacles that we face if we are ever going to land humans on Mars.
Blake Ortner is co-chairman of the Humans to Mars Summit and director of D.C. Ops for Explore Mars Inc. He is a U.S. infantry officer who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chris Carberry is executive director of Explore Mars Inc.