One can only imagine what Wernher von Braun would have said if had he known, back in the days of Apollo, that not only would we not have landed humans on Mars by the year 2014, but we would still be decades away from achieving that goal. Undoubtedly, his reaction would have included stunned disbelief. Frankly, we should also be in a state of disbelief. After all, von Braun has not been the only prominent person to advocate for sending humans to Mars since the dawn of the Space Age. Indeed, U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush each attempted to launch programs to land crews on Mars, and President Barack Obama has stated that Mars is the “ultimate” destination. Yet we seem no closer than when von Braun was advocating the humans-to-Mars goal so many decades ago.

Mars is Feasible and Affordable

Why aren’t we on Mars yet? Is it too expensive? Is it technically unfeasible? Why aren’t we at least on the way?

According to the Affording Mars Workshop, which was held in December in Washington, Mars is both feasible and affordable. These findings weren’t made by a group of Mars cheerleaders or “armchair quarterbacks” who based their opinions on wishful thinking. This workshop consisted of key industry/commercial, government, academic and international representatives, all experts in their respective fields. They agreed on the following top-level observations:

  • The goal of sending humans to Mars is affordable with the right partnerships (international, commercial/industrial, intergovernmental, etc.), commitment to efficiency, constancy of purpose, and policy/budget consistency.
  • Human exploration of Mars is technologically feasible by the 2030s.
  • Mars should be the priority for human spaceflight over the next two to three decades.
  • Between now and 2030, investments and activities in the human exploration of space must be prioritized in a manner that advances the objective of initial human missions to Mars beginning in the 2030s.
  • Utilizing the international space station, including international partnerships, is essential for human missions to deep space.
  • Continuation of robotic precursor missions to Mars throughout the 2020s is essential for the success of human missions to Mars.

While obviously challenging, human missions to Mars are clearly technically and fiscally achievable, given the right set of commitments. This working group plans to examine these issues in more depth throughout the coming year, examining drivers of cost, architecture options, better utilization of ISS, and the international partnerships.

Indeed, this topic will also be a key focus of the 52nd Robert H. Goddard Symposium March 4-6 and of the Humans to Mars Summit April 22-24 in order to build the case for a sustainable program that will lead us to Mars by the 2030s. Judging by the result of the Mars Generation Survey of 2013, there is overwhelming public support for this goal. According to the poll, over 70 percent of Americans believe that humans will land on Mars by 2033.

Reframing U.S. Space Policy

It should be noted that Mars is an official part of U.S. space policy, with the Obama administration having referred to Mars as the “ultimate” destination. While this sounds ambitious, the word “ultimate” may actually be a misnomer; to call Mars the “ultimate” destination rather than “the” destination may have had the unintended consequence of making Mars a far-off goal , one that cannot be aspired to in the near term. It may have removed any urgency from the goal and reduced Mars to political rhetoric rather than a true destination for our space program. Urgency, however, is needed. Without a sense of urgency, the goal will continue to be pushed off — as has been the case for the past 50 years.

Our space program needs to be more clearly defined. Human missions to Mars starting in the 2030s should be the overarching goal of the U.S. space program. Current programs need to be clearly framed to show how these programs advance the Mars goal (and other objectives).

This doesn’t mean we won’t go anywhere else. Precursor missions will be essential, and intermediate destinations and accomplishments may be necessary steppingstones. But if we structure the overall program properly, the Mars goal should help justify and sustain other missions.

We also need to be clear that Mars is not the “final” destination. A sustained presence on Mars should be considered not the end of but the first phase of exploration. We are not going to Mars to take a stroll and plant a flag. We are going to stay, and to establish a sustained human presence on another world.

There are many technological, physiological and scientific challenges to overcome before we land on Mars, but these appear to be surmountable. The true challenge of landing human on Mars, however, is building and sustaining the necessary political will and commitment, assembling strong public-private partnerships, building unity with our international partners, and having a willingness to try new approaches. If we can do so, Mars appears so much closer and within our grasp.

Chris Carberry is executive director of Explore Mars Inc. Rick Zucker is chair of the Space Exploration Alliance’s 2014 Legislative Blitz, and director of political outreach for Explore Mars Inc.