The president’s announcement next week laying out plans for America’s space program needs to be both visionary and achievable, but regardless will be welcome direction for a program that has drifted in the decades since Apollo last visited the Moon.

On December17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright changed the course of history with their successful flight of an airplane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  Fifty-eight years after the Wright brothers’ flight, another event occurred that is destined to have a similar impact on history-a Russian cosmonaut and then an American astronaut traveled into space for the first time.  Only eight years after those initial flights, two Americans landed on the surface of the Moon and left the first human footprints on another world. 

While there have been exciting and important accomplishments in robotic space exploration over the last three decades, the nation’s human space flight program has drifted, with no consensus on its goals.  The president has both the opportunity and the responsibility to provide leadership in this area.

The president should say that the nation is committed to human space exploration for the long-term, and he should outline an ambitious, phased program of exploration and research beyond low Earth orbit.  Mars is an obvious goal of such a program, and we should be gearing our efforts toward its eventual attainment.  Mars, however, should not be the only goal, and certainly not the initial one.  American taxpayers will not be content to wait decades for any return on their investments in human space exploration.

Intermediate goals are needed, and there are several that are compelling.  They include the assembly of scientific observatories beyond the Moon that can search for other life-bearing solar systems; missions to Earth-orbit crossing asteroids, objects that need to be understood if we are to protect Earth from catastrophic impacts in the future such as those that led to mass extinctions in the Earth’s prehistory; and establishment of a research base on the Moon.  Each of these intermediate goals would have intrinsic value and would help prepare us for eventual missions to Mars. 

The initial exploration of the Moon that ended 31 years ago certainly achieved the geopolitical objectives set for the Apollo program.  But we failed to capitalize on Apollo.  We truncated the scientific exploration of the Moon by never systematically seeking to use the lunar environment for scientific, technological or commercial activities.  And we walked away from the infrastructure the nation had built to enable humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit. 

America should go back to the Moon within a decade-this time with the goal of establishing research facilities on its surface similar to those that exist at Antarctica.  Why?  Scientists believe there is much to learn on the Moon, and technologists believe the Moon offers an invaluable test bed for the systems and operational concepts needed to enable eventual human expeditions to Mars and its moons. 

Many compelling reasons for human space exploration exist.  Exploration is intrinsic to our species-it’s what we have done since the dawn of history. It can be a powerful source of inspiration and motivation for our students, providing an exciting rationale for seeking proficiency in math and science, a critical need for our society in the decades ahead. 

Finally, history has demonstrated that we have garnered important ancillary benefits from our investments in the nation’s human space flight program, ranging from improved medical diagnostic and telemetric systems to new materials, electronic devices and many other applications that have improved our quality of life.  I expect similar benefits from a sustained program of human exploration of the solar system.

The president needs to provide leadership to place an ambitious human space-exploration agenda on the table, and Congress needs to be prepared to do its part.  But I do not want to minimize the difficulty of doing what I am proposing.  An ambitious presidential space agenda must represent a durable commitment, not simply one more re-election sound bite, or both Congress and the American public will dismiss it out of hand.  Most importantly, an increased focus on space exploration should not be a substitute for attention to other pressing national needs or a diversion from meeting our commitments to our poor, our elderly and our veterans.

We are a nation blessed with bounteous natural and human resources, but we currently invest only a little more than one-tenth of one percent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product on NASA.  We can afford to increase that share by a modest amount to provide the basis for an exciting and productive future of exploration.  I hope the president will propose doing just that.