Commentary | Why Not Mars by 2030?

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I recently had the pleasure of touring the headquarters of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) in Hawthorne, Calif. To say that it was impressive is an understatement. Where else on Earth can you find a facility in which nearly every aspect of a launch system is built under a single roof?

However, what impressed me the most was the age of the SpaceX employees. The company was bustling with people in their 20s and 30s. It was as though I was peeking into the 1960s Apollo program. By contrast, an average worker at today’s NASA is in his or her 50s. I am a great admirer and supporter of the agency, but it has been a long time since NASA has been able to harness the youthful enthusiasm that drove the Apollo program. If we are really serious about an ambitious, long-term American human space exploration program, it is vital that we inspire young people in school or just after they have entered the workforce.

This is not to say that I want SpaceX and similar companies to carry the full weight of the space program, but SpaceX provides strong evidence that young people will become passionate about space exploration and will devote their lives to it if they are presented with a program that they feel will succeed — not as they approach their retirement, but in the foreseeable future.

Will a new space policy be able to inspire young people (and the rest of the nation)?

The original plan presented by U.S. President Obama in April had many exciting elements, such as utilizing new commercial companies (like SpaceX), technology development, international cooperation and science. The fact that Mars has been referred to as the “ultimate goal” is also extremely positive. However, many of the stated goals were so far in the future that it is difficult to believe the program will survive politically. With a mission to a near-Earth object by 2025 and a Mars flyby by 2035 — and humans landing on Mars at some undefined time after that — it is difficult for most people to get excited about the program or even believe it will happen.

The recent Senate action on a compromise NASA authorization bill indicates a stronger desire to keep America No. 1. in space. By speeding the development of a heavy-lift capability to 2016 and advancing development of a truly deep space exploration vehicle, while still keeping strong funding for commercial space opportunities to and from low Earth orbit, the compromise has the potential to create excitement in the near future. This brings the goal up close, to a point students today can grasp and believe in. Advancing new hardware like the heavy-lift vehicle and deep space vehicle, we also can maintain the high-tech employment that is so critical to America’s lead in technology development and applications. This does not appear to be the case in the House version, which doesn’t make the same commitment to heavy lift or commercial space opportunities and leaves a large percentage of the budget in an “unspecified” category, keeping our space policy in further limbo.

One of the drawbacks of the president’s timeline was the failure to make a decision on a heavy-lift vehicle until 2015. Why wait five years? The stated reason is that the administration wants to investigate new heavy-lift technologies, but it is unlikely that there will be new technologies for launching to Earth orbit by 2015.

Perhaps there is value in reviewing options for a year or two, but by waiting until 2015, the program is instantly put on political thin ice. The 2015 announcement will come in the middle of the president’s second term, assuming he is re-elected. This timing will virtually guarantee no significant work on heavy lift before he leaves office.

Another tremendous advantage of the Senate timeline is budgetary constraints. There is no question that we are living in precarious fiscal times. The president’s plan would have spent a lot of money on NASA over the next decade, yet would not move us any closer to a destination beyond low Earth orbit. This compromise will advance the decision on the heavy-lift vehicle, and by doing so, NASA will show significant progress before a new administration comes into office — enabling NASA to accelerate the rest of the program.

The Senate plan is far from perfect, but it is superior. We can set the goal of going somewhere beyond low Earth orbit within the next 10 years and the people of America will see it happening. With the proper combination of public, commercial and international collaboration, there is no reason that we can’t reach a near-Earth object (or some other destination) by 2020 and land humans on the surface of Mars by 2030. Perhaps the variables no longer exist that allowed us to land on the Moon in eight years, but I certainly hope that if we set the goal of landing humans on Mars in 20 years, we can accomplish that goal. Otherwise, I am truly worried about the future of this nation.

The United States has a $13 trillion debt and falling self-esteem. At less than 1 percent of the federal budget, the space program is one of the few federal bureaucracies with the power to economically energize the nation and at the same time advance the science and technology that will be so vital to long-term competitiveness. This is why Congress and the administration (and NASA) must agree to this compromise soon — one that is not based solely on political expediency. The decision must be made based on what is best for the nation and what will produce the best and most efficient space program.

For the time being, the United States is still the nation most capable of leading the next great age of exploration and discovery. This may not be the case in another decade. As with the fable of the tortoise and the hare, if we sleep under a tree long enough, we will lose the race — even if our competition is moving at a seemingly slow pace. It is time to energize the nation by committing to a human mission to Mars by 2030. If we do that, perhaps the youth and vitality of SpaceX will become commonplace.

Chris Carberry is executive director of Explore Mars Inc., a new project-oriented organization that soon will be launching its Mars Education Challenge and In Situ Resource Utilization Challenge. He can be reached at carberry@exploremars.org.