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It's Time We Commit to Send Humans to Mars

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There is growing support for human missions to Mars within the next two decades. This has been fueled by the remarkable success of NASA missions such as the Curiosity rover as well as a growing desire that our nation show that we are still capable of bold and historic endeavors. Not all are convinced of this goal, however.

In a recent meeting, I was asked, "Why such a hurry to get to Mars? Mars isn't going away." I thought about this comment after the meeting. I realized that humans will never travel to Mars -- or achieve any ambitious goals -- if the world's space agencies were to embrace such an attitude. A sense of urgency is required, perhaps more now than we have ever required since the Apollo program in the 1960s. Without a firm goal, humans will never land on Mars.

We have been planning to go to Mars for a long time

History supports this premise. Humans to Mars is not a new idea. The world has been planning to go to Mars for more than fifty years (see the late Jesco von Puttkamer discuss the history of U.S. Mars ambitions). The first serious proposal for an American program to send humans to Mars was advocated by Werner Von Braun. To Von Braun, the Moon was merely a steppingstone on the way to Mars. At the time, he and others at NASA hoped to land on Mars in the early 1980s. But, after we had beaten the Soviet Union to the Moon, the program got redirected to low-Earth orbit and concentrated on the Space Shuttle and Space Stations. The Mars dream was shelved.

In 1989, the dream was revitalized again when President George H.W. Bush announced plans to return to the Moon and then on to Mars. But when a specific plan was delivered to Bush, it had been conceived in such an expensive manner -- and seemingly trying to satisfy every interest group's technological wish list - that the plan was not fiscally or politically feasible. It was soon scuttled, sunk by its own implausibility.

Fifteen years later, soon after the Space Shuttle Columbia accident, George W. Bush rekindled his father's dream with his announcement of the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) that called for missions to the "Moon, Mars, and Beyond." That plan was also terminated when President Obama came into office, although Obama announced an alternative plan that also stated that the 'Ultimate' goal is Mars. Unfortunately, this 'ultimate' goal still lacks detail, engineering design, and stable funding.

Meanwhile, during this long time period, generations of school children have been told by astronauts and others, "You are about the right age. When you are an adult, you may be able to walk on Mars." Many of those children are now middle-aged.

Clearly, humans-to-Mars is not a new dream. But, without a firm commitment to reach Mars by a specific date, we will never make progress.

A New Opportunity

One of the obstacles to this firm commitment has been the assertion by often well-intentioned critics that Mars is neither feasible nor affordable. Ridiculously high cost estimates have been cited over the years, even while experts in the space community know that these numbers were grossly inaccurate.

However, in the past few years, there has been a remarkable groundswell of interest in revitalizing humanity's dream of landing humans on Mars. This groundswell motivate a recent workshop comprising some of the most prominent aerospace, planetary science, corporate, and academic experts on human space flight. They met in December 2013 at George Washington University to determine what it would take to make human missions to Mars both feasible and affordable. While this meeting was just the first step, this Affording Mars working group concluded

  • The goal of sending humans to Mars is affordable with the right partnerships (international, commercial/industrial, intergovernmental, etc.), commitment to efficiency, constancy of purpose, and policy/budget consistency.
  • Human exploration of Mars is technologically feasible by the 2030s.
  • Mars should be the overarching priority for human space flight over the next two to three decades.
  • Between now and 2030, investments and activities in the human exploration of space must be prioritized in a manner that advances the objective of initial human missions to Mars beginning in the 2030s.
  • Utilizing ISS, including international partnerships, is essential for human missions to deep space.
  • Continuation of robotic precursor missions to Mars throughout the 2020s is essential for the success of human missions to Mars.

While this was just the first of an ongoing series of activities by this working group, it was clear by the end of the meeting that there was solid agreement that international investments must be made in the near term to enable human missions to Mars in the 2030s. (See Affording Mars Report here.)

So, what keeps us from committing to human exploration of Mars?

We cannot predict all challenges, engineering designs, and cost drivers that will impact the
mission planning over the next two decades, although it is clear that we have enough information -- based on decades of experience and studies -- to commit to this goal.

The Affording Mars working group is planning a series of follow-up activities over the next few months to examine the challenges of feasibility and affordability, and additional updates on these activities will be presented at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, DC on April 22-24, 2014 (h2m2014.exploremars.org) and throughout the year.

Unquestionably, there will be many challenges as we plan for Mars missions, but what is also clear is that the time has come to commit, for the following reasons:

1) Human missions to Mars are affordable and feasible no later than the 2030s,
2) The US Administration has stated that Mars is the "ultimate" goal,
3) There is growing support in Congress for a Mars commitment,
4) The American public strongly supports this goal (see recent poll results)
5) Our international partners want us to lead such an effort, and
6) If we don't commit soon, we will probably be passed by other nations.

If we can achieve Mars without a major increase in budget, it would be fiscally irresponsible NOT to commit. We have made a long-term investment in space. Let's make the most effective use of taxpayer and private dollars and accomplish something bold and inspiring for the nation and the world. So, when astronauts visit classrooms today, and tell students, "You are about the right age. You may have an opportunity to walk on Mars," those students will have a real chance to make that dream into reality.