Observing anniversaries of historic events is part of human culture. It helps us to remember and reflect on transformative moments of our civilization. Too often, however, these anniversaries represent tragedies that have been imprinted on the public consciousness. For example, one will hear people say, “I remember the moment that I learned that JFK had been assassinated,” or “I member the moment that the Twin Towers fell,” or “I remember the moment when the space shuttle exploded.”
Few of these pivotal moments — the ones that have been burned into our collective memories – are positive. Today marks a rare exception. Fifty years ago today, humans walked on another planetary body for the first time in history. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the surface of the moon, the entire world was watching, every person captivated and inspired — regardless of nationality, ethnicity, income or gender. It appeared that human civilization had truly entered a new and exciting phase. Those who were alive at the time to experience this event can most likely, even 50 years later, tell you exactly where they were at the time. Many will tell you that they were sitting in their living room or den, watching on a black and white Zenith console TV, listening intently to the reporting of Walter Cronkite.
We are correct to celebrate this remarkable achievement, but this 50th anniversary also reminds us what could, and many of us feel should, have been. After beating the Soviet Union to the moon, the United States lost its motivation to continue sending astronauts to the moon – the last mission ascending from the lunar surface in December 1972. Since then, there have been calls by several presidents to return to the moon and send humans to Mars, but these aspirations to return humans to deep space have not in all those intervening years, so to speak, gotten off the ground.
The times, however, they may be changing. In this second decade of the 21st century, the United States and our industrial and international partners have been developing launch, crew, and other capabilities that will help enable us to send humans into deep space again. We are now in a far better position, and so much closer, to return to the moon and send humans to Mars than we ever have been in the past. There are still many technical challenges to overcome, but the biggest challenge remains the political will to do so.
Earlier this year, the administration announced bold plans to return humanity to the moon by 2024, advancing the previous timeline of 2028, and then on to Mars by 2033. This goal is consistent with the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 that calls for human missions to Mars by 2033, a bill that was unanimously approved by both houses of Congress and then signed into law by the president.
In seeking to return to the moon on such an accelerated schedule, however, it is essential that such missions are designed and conducted in a manner that will enable and feed forward to human missions to Mars in the 2030s. If mission designers and policymakers do not commit to that notion from the start, the program may devolve into a moon-only program, with the result that we probably would not see humans on Mars for several more decades. Fortunately, there appears to be strong public support for that not happening. A recent Gallup Poll showed that 53 percent of Americans support sending humans to Mars. Interestingly, this particular survey was conducted without providing poll participants with current NASA budget information and context. Most Americans believe that NASA’s budget accounts for a much higher percentage of the federal budget than it actually does.
In reality, NASA represents less than half of 1 percent of the federal budget. Even with proposed budget increases to accelerate the return to the moon, NASA’s budget will remain well under 1 percent of the federal budget. As shown in the 2013 Mars Generation poll,public support jumps to over 70 percent when people are made aware of NASA’s real budgetary numbers, and once armed with those actual numbers, a large percentage of people are in favor of doubling NASA’s budget. Although it is unrealistic in our fiscally challenged times to expect such an increase, imagine what we could accomplish in space today if we increased NASA’s budget even by just 10 percent!
Support for our space program is one of the few issues or policies in America today that unites us. Based on the strong level of bipartisan political and public support, returning to the moon in the 2020s and on to Mars in the 2030s will not only inspire Americans but also the rest of the world. We must ensure that when people look back at the next 20 years in decades to come, it will not be a tragedy that they recall when they say, “I remember the moment when,” but instead they will say, “I remember the moment that humans stepped on Mars for the first time!”
Chris Carberry is CEO, Explore Mars, Inc.
Rick Zucker is VP of Policy, Explore Mars, Inc.