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Let's Not Wait for Utopia Before We Send Humans to Mars

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As we celebrate the success of the Curiosity rover on Mars and reflect on the remarkable life of Neil Armstrong, it's not hard to imagine what amazing achievements in space exploration can be accomplished/attained in the next few decades. However, not everyone is supportive of exploring space. Skeptics are often heard saying: "How can we explore space when there is so much poverty in the world?" Although poverty unquestionably is a problem in this nation and around the world, stopping our exploration of space is unlikely to reduce poverty. On the contrary, it would almost certainly be counterproductive to the worldwide poverty issue.

It is important to realize that the NASA budget represents less than half of one percent of the federal budget. By comparison, social programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and other similar programs, account for over fifty percent of the budget. In other words, the annual budget for U.S. social programs is are more than 100 times greater than what NASA receives. To say that curtailing missions like Curiosity will solve our poverty problems is therefore false and hopelessly misguided. Even if we eliminated NASA completely, it would have a negligible impact on the total budget. It would be a drop on the budgetary bucket as NASA's budgets equals approximately two days of federal spending. This is still a lot of money, but far removed from what would be necessary to eliminate poverty even for a short time.

In reality, a focused and well-conceived space program has the strong potential to improve society -- reducing problems here at home. How?

First of all, all funding for space missions is spent here on Earth. It pays the salaries of some of the top scientists, engineers, inventors, and innovators in the world. These are the types of high-paying technical jobs that we constantly hear television pundits say are essential for the future competitiveness of the country and for maintaining a vibrant economy that will help keep thousands of people employed.

Probably no other federal agency has the power to inspire students to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education like NASA does when it has a focused and sustainable mission. If students actually believe we will be sending humans to Mars during the first half of their career, they will become engaged and many of them will enter science, engineering, and technology fields to be part of this great adventure. But the impact will not be limited to students. Committing to a human mission to Mars by 2030 will set a new tone for the nation -- one that can be a powerful catalyst for innovation and economic strength over the next several decades.

Investment in education and social programs are essential, but confidence in a limitless future can be a powerful motivator to allow students and others to raise themselves out of poverty. The Apollo program inspired millions and can be directly traced to many aspects of the technology and communications revolution of the following decades. Space technology is used every day in food production, weather forecasting, national security, and these technologies are connecting traditionally poor areas to the global community -- providing them new tools to lift themselves out of poverty.

We have two choices: We can decide to wait for utopia to materialize before we explore space and do other bold endeavors, or we can take risks, embrace innovation, and continue our tradition of exploration now, despite the fact that we live in an imperfect world. It is even possible that the achievements of human space exploration can develop the means to improve the world for us all through innovating energy production, water and air purification, food production or a myriad of other innovations that cannot even be imagined today. This combined with the potential for scientific discovery in space itself makes space exploration a bargain within the federal budget.

Rather than being "a penny wise, and a 'ton' foolish," by cutting our investment in space exploration, we should aim to spend every dollar as productively as possible and show the nation and the world that we are still on top. People in the United States need inspiration, and the modest sum that is spent on space will not eliminate poverty if those funds were redirected for that purpose. Yet it can give them inspiration and hope; showing them that humans can do great things when given the chance. Let's honor the memory and dreams of Neil Armstrong. Let's continue his small step by landing astronauts on Mars by the year 2030.

Chris Carberry is Executive Director of Explore Mars, Inc. Artemis Westenberg is President of Explore Mars, Inc.

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.