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2021: A New Space Odyssey?

On a wall of my D.C. office, I look at a poster-sized photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope called the Deep Field. Some years ago, astronomers pointed the Hubble at a dark speck of sky so small it could be covered by Abraham Lincoln’s eye on a penny held at arm’s length. Within that tiny area of the dark sky, they discovered 3,000 points of light — each a galaxy comprised of an average of 100 billion stars.

To me, this picture symbolizes the need to look beyond Earth, to consider our place in the universe, and to dream about infinite possibilities through the exploration of what is out there.

Another photo that has made a great impression is of Earth as seen from space, a pale blue dot in a sea of darkness. The first Americans to fly to the Moon on the Apollo 8 mission in 1968 looked back at our planet nearly 400,000 kilometers away and contemplated how everyone and everything they had ever known was found on that blue marble.

At a fundamental level, space exploration — the mission of NASA — is about inspiration. For years I have heard countless stories of how NASA inspired students to study math, chemistry and physics, and adults to become scientists and engineers. However, some of these same people now feel that NASA no longer inspires them, their children or their grandchildren.

Mankind’s first steps on the Moon are a distant memory. And with the retirement of the space shuttle, NASA is paying Russia $70 million a seat to transport American astronauts to the international space station. There’s a sense that America is falling behind, with our best days behind us. Today, America’s finest spaceships and largest rockets are found in museums rather than on launch pads.

Regrettably, the Obama administration has contributed to this situation. Within a few months of taking office, the White House drastically cut the budget for NASA’s Constellation program to return American astronauts to the Moon. In its stead, President Barack Obama has proposed robotic and human missions to an unnamed asteroid.

NASA’s own advisory group on asteroids derided this mission, saying “it was not considered to be a serious proposal.” While consensus on Capitol Hill might be hard to find, there is general agreement that the president’s asteroid retrieval mission inspires neither the scientific community nor the public, who would foot the bill.      

So, what is an inspiring mission? Maybe a journey to Mars. The red planet has long intrigued us. And one of the most intriguing missions is a Mars flyby with two astronauts onboard NASA’s Orion crew vehicle. NASA’s Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket, which is currently under development, could propel Orion to Mars, but additional life-support modules will be needed. The flyby would take advantage of a unique alignment between Earth and Mars in 2021 that would also include a flyby of the planet Venus. Such a mission is only eight years away, about as much time as President John F. Kennedy gave NASA to shoot for the Moon and take the mantle of space leadership away from the Soviet Union. The engineering design team behind this proposal is composed of widely respected aerospace engineers — some of NASA’s best and brightest. 

We are not the only nation interested in extending humanity’s reach into the solar system. One of the spacefaring nations will reach Mars. The question is whether it will be the United States, Russia or China.

Great nations do great things. President Kennedy’s call to the nation wasn’t just about reaching the Moon, it was a reminder that we are an exceptional nation. We must rekindle within NASA the fire that blazed the trail to the Moon. The future of this nation’s exploration efforts lead to Mars. The first flag to fly on another planet in our solar system should be that of the United States.

Earlier this year, the Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing to examine a Mars flyby 2021 mission. Witnesses testified that the mission is feasible. The committee recently approved a bipartisan NASA authorization bill that explicitly calls on NASA to conduct an independent review of a Mars flyby mission in 2021.

NASA, the White House and Congress should carefully consider this mission proposal. Such a bold new deep-space mission would focus our efforts and inspire our nation. 

 

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

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