If U.S. President Barack Obama was hoping to inspire the nation with his “bold and ambitious” plan for restructuring the civil space program, then he has failed. Most Americans think first of human spaceflight — of astronauts — when the name of NASA is mentioned, and the dominant response to the president’s plan among people working in that part of the space program is despair. Thousands are going to lose their jobs, and the once-bright hope of mankind’s future in the stars is rapidly slipping away.

Granted, the “Star Trek” vision of tomorrow was always a fantasy. It takes light 40,000 years to travel from our neck of the galaxy to its center, and Einstein pretty much destroyed the hope that we would ever be able to travel at anything approaching that speed. But at least there was the promise of humans exploring our own local solar system, and maybe one day setting out on a multigeneration expedition to a neighboring system.

Now that hope too is dashed, because the White House wants to kill the only initiative in place to get human beings beyond low Earth orbit (LEO), and even the prospects for sustaining access to LEO are looking uncertain. The space shuttle is retiring, the “entrepreneurial” options for getting to LEO are old wine in new bottles, and the public may rebel against relying on Russian launchers. So while the universe is still expanding, our capacity to go see it seems to be shrinking back to the Earth-bound circumstances prevailing before President John F. Kennedy stirred the nation with his vision of a manned mission to the Moon in 1961.

That vision turned into one of the greatest technological achievements in human history, landing humans on the Moon and then safely returning them to Earth in less than a hundred months after Kennedy articulated the goal. The contrast between Kennedy’s approach and Obama’s could hardly be greater, and it begins with the key omission that Space News identified in its Sept. 20 editorial [“No Attractive Options for NASA,” page 18]: The restructured human spaceflight program has no goal. It has lots of moving pieces, but there is no answer to the question, where is it going, and why?

Imagine starting the Manhattan Project with no clear goal in mind. Or the Tennessee Valley Authority — “We’re going to build a bunch of dams, and see what comes of it!” That’s pretty much the approach that the Obama administration is taking to human spaceflight, and it’s likely to produce the same results as other multibillion-dollar tech projects that lacked a goal the public could grasp, like the Superconducting Super Collider. A new administration soon appears on the scene, identifies the project as a bill-payer, and claims the money for other purposes. The demise of the human spaceflight program, which began with the bang of the Challenger disaster, thus ends with a whimper.

Some will say that is Obama’s real goal, since he proposed transferring money out of human spaceflight to education programs even before he won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Others will say the president’s approach reflects the limitations of his technocratic style of governing. Whatever the source of his new “vision” for human spaceflight was, it lacks the capacity to inspire as Kennedy’s did, and thus is doomed to fail in the political system. Congress sees this, but is too preoccupied with protecting the status quo to craft a coherent alternative.

Fortunately, the problem is not hard to fix. The human spaceflight program needs a goal, and the goal has to be Mars.

The purpose of the whole civil space program is to expand mankind’s horizons in ways that are relevant to dealing with challenges here on Earth. Mars is the only truly Earth-like planet in the known universe other than Earth itself. Not only does it orbit on the edge of the habitability zone within which life as we know it can be sustained, but it has water, it has atmosphere, and it has seasons. Its surface gravity may be only 38 percent of our own and its years may be nearly twice as long, but compared with any other place in the solar system, it is the obvious destination for humans.

There is much we can learn about life through more intensive investigation of the red planet, and it is the one place beyond Earth where we can build a self-sustaining colony of humans. You don’t have to believe the optimists who claim that Mars might one day be “terraformed” into a second Earth — or the pessimists who think life on Earth could soon be wiped out by an asteroid hit — to see that sending people to Mars has the capacity to inspire. Our poets and artists have given expression to that dream for centuries.

One nice thing about making Mars our destination is that it is the kind of technological stretch that strengthens civilizations, but it is doable within a generation if we set our minds to achieving the goal. All the details of the human spaceflight program — the heavy-lift launch vehicle, the crew capsule, etc. — would quickly fall into place if the White House simply said, “Our goal is a human mission to Mars in 2030.” That clear-cut objective would define the timetable for technology development and increasingly challenging missions leading to an actual landing.

Perhaps I am just too old to understand why it isn’t obvious that Mars must be our destination. When I was a young man, watching Neil Armstrong step onto the Moon, it seemed obvious that Mars would be next. Some people think America has lost its way during the intervening decades, but it also has seen huge technological progress. It is probably easier to put people on Mars today than it was to put people on the Moon 40 years ago. So the White House ought to get its act together and recognize the obvious: If America is going to maintain a robust human spaceflight program, then its goal has to be landing astronauts on Mars.


Loren Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute.