We don't know what year humans will set foot on Mars. We don't know what nationality will be first to stand beside their flag on the Martian surface. We can't even be certain how we will get there. However, we do know that it is highly likely that the generation that will first step foot on Mars is already with us. Assuming these individuals are still of school age today, "The Mars Generation" will have a much different perspective of the world than previous generations.
In many ways, "The Mars Generation" already embodies what our astronauts have seen from space for 40 years -- a world without borders. They are increasingly unbound from past assumptions that don't fit their logical or emotional worldview. Why? Because they can communicate with people of like ideas anywhere on Earth today. That connection may overcome historical barriers and may allow better collaboration towards common goals. Technology binds them together like no other time in history. This is not to say the "The Mars Generation" will be less patriotic, but their worldview of cultures, peoples, and societies will be considerably different and more accepting than previous generations because of their connections.
Despite this swiftly evolving connectivity, or maybe because of it, it is not inevitable that the United States will lead (or even participate in) human missions to Mars. If the United States wishes to guarantee a leading role in this adventure, we need to quickly focus our priorities. While NASA could undoubtedly benefit from increased budgets, the main problem for NASA is that Congress and the administration can't agree what to do. When they do, they can't stick with that decision long enough to achieve most major space goals. We have wasted tens of billions of dollars as a result of changes in direction or cancellations as an excuse to "save money" and as a result have little or nothing to show for it. Is there a better way that provides value for the spending and a level of achievement?
Recommendations on how to resolve many of these issues are outlined in a recent report by the Space Foundation which calls for more long term planning, mechanisms to maintain stable budgets and efficiencies, the need to set clear goals and timelines, and to focus on "pioneering." These concepts should go a long way toward enabling NASA to use its allocated funds to efficiently and effectively reach goals that the American people deserve and can be proud of and inspired by.
As we continue down an uncertain budgetary path, it is worth putting NASA spending into context. Too often people ask whether these funds would be better spent on social programs -- to help solve some of the problems in society. Social programs are unquestionably vital to our society, but it is ludicrous to say that NASA was holding them back. One year of current US social programs (entitlements) have a dollar total of more than three times the total number of dollars spent on NASA since its founding in 1958. Clearly, NASA is not the magic funding bullet for entitlement reform. More importantly, the space program has given us products that have benefited society from clean energy production and pollution monitoring to fetal heart monitors and even battery operated power tools, items taken for granted today.
The historic landing of the Curiosity Rover on Mars in August is a powerful reminder that we are still second to none in space engineering. The enthusiasm from students and young professionals for this mission, as well as the exciting progress of such companies as SpaceX, show that we have no lack of excitement for space exploration. We just need to show that we really intend to get something done. Power point missions that have no hope of being completed for 30-40 years just won't do. They don't inspire, they don't excite -- they just look pretty.
Forty years ago we left the Moon and voluntarily scrapped the greatest space exploration architecture ever devised -- forty years since we last left Low Earth Orbit. Human occupied US spacecraft (including the International Space Station) have orbited the Earth more than 100,000 times and traveled over 2 billion miles -- all within 250 miles of Earth, still the Mars Generation will have no first hand memory of the Apollo program or Moon landings. Even the Space Shuttle program will be something they view in history videos or texts on their tablets and the post-tablet technologies. None were alive to see a launch or watch it on TV (or the internet). They will learn about it the way their parents learned about the Wright Brothers first flight, Lindbergh's solo flight across the ocean, or Chuck Yeager's supersonic flight - old history from America's past. But there is hope that they can see more.
To enable this "Mars Generation" in the United States, we need do something that is rare in the current political environment. We need to be focused and we need to be patient. Despite the obvious challenges, let's be audacious. We should and must inspire American youth of today to know that they can be the future. That they can still make the great discoveries. And that they can do the impossible, the impossible that made the United States the technological envy of the world and inspired thousands like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. There is strong support in the US for such a mission. A recent scientific poll commissioned by Explore Mars, Inc, Boeing, and Phillips and Company of Austin, show that over 70 percent of Americans believe that humans will land on Mars by the early 2030s and a similar percent believe that we should send both humans and robots to explore Mars. Let's commit to landing humans on Mars by the year 2030 and in doing so, unleash the unique potential of "The Mars Generation."
Chris Carberry is Executive Director of Explore Mars, Inc. Blake Ortner is Co-Chairman of the Humans to Mars Summit at Explore Mars, Inc.