On the morning of Aug. 6, 2012, Curiosity, the most ambitious and complex robotic rover in space history, will land on the Martian surface. The size of a small SUV, Curiosity, if successful, could help answer questions we have been asking for a century, most notably: Could Mars have ever have sustained life?
Curiosity follows some amazing progress in Mars exploration over the past 15 years. Recent successful American missions include the Mars Pathfinder mission of 1997, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers of 2004 and the Mars Odyssey, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Phoenix lander. Although there have been some setbacks, we have learned from our mistakes each time and improved the program. The United States has by far had more successful Mars missions than any other nation.
It came as a great shock, then, to learn earlier this year that the 2013 federal budget eliminated funding for future NASA Mars missions. The entire NASA budget is less than half of 1 percent of the federal budget, and the Mars budget is a small portion of that number. There is no question that we need to remedy our fiscal problems, but eliminating the Mars portion of the NASA budget is, to paraphrase an old saying, a penny wise and metric ton foolish.
Rather than finding new and inventive ways to neuter the American space agency, we should use this modest budget to explore, advance vital technology and make great discoveries. For a relatively tiny investment, we can maintain a technological and scientific edge that permeates well beyond the space program. We can inspire students to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education fields, the very areas that are tantamount in shoring up American competitiveness. We can remind the American public this nation is still capable of great things, and we can show the rest of the world that despite rumors to the contrary the decline of the United States is far from being a foregone conclusion.
Curiosity will be landing in Gale Crater, a far rougher landscape than the landing sites of any previous mission. So in addition to a potential treasure trove of scientific findings, the images coming from this mission should captivate the world and leave millions of people asking, "What next?"
It would be a national disgrace if the answer to this question was "nothing." Curiosity can and must be used as a catalyst to reinvigorate our space goals. There is no shortage of potential mission concepts that could be launched over the next decade. NASA recently reviewed more than 400 proposals for new robotic Mars missions. Many of these concepts are extremely innovative and would be worthy follow-up missions to Curiosity. Specifically, the United States should set the goal of launching a Mars Sample Return Mission by the end of this decade, and set a goal of landing humans on Mars by 2030.
September will mark the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's "We choose to go to the Moon" speech at Rice University in Houston. We live in a very different geopolitical world now than we did in 1962 and today's NASA is a far cry from the NASA of that era. But we also live in a world where much more is possible.
When Kennedy pledged to "go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard," America had a total of 15 minutes of human spaceflight experience. Just imagine what we can do now if we only "choose" to do it. Humans on Mars by 2030 can and should be our next goal.
Chris Carberry is executive director and co-founder of Explore Mars.