The international community is longing for the next big cooperative goal in space exploration. There have been modest partnerships in space since the 1960s -- growing during the Space Shuttle era -- but the International Space Station was a turning point in international cooperation. It was far from a perfect model, but it pulled the various national space agencies closer together than ever before. For more than two decades this partnership grew, worked out technical and cultural differences, and evolved. These nations have managed to build, assemble and now operate the largest structure ever built in space.
ISS is supposed to operate until at least 2020. However, the time to start planning the next large international space mission is now. That mission should be a human mission to Mars. If we wait until ISS ends, we will have not only wasted a lot of time, but potentially wasted the opportunity to harness the expertise, lessons and unity that ISS brings us in space. If we let go of that unity in purpose, we may not get it back.
An international mission also makes sense from a budgetary perspective. Budget and policy pressures are far greater than they were in the 1990s when ISS was started, and that holds true for both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Dividing the costs will increase the total budget of the mission, but will reduce the cost that each nation will need to contribute. The international mission planners will also have the benefit of two decades of international coordination on ISS, which includes development of procedures, hardware integration and interpersonal/intercultural understanding. Without this foundation created by ISS, starting a new international mission would be far more complicated.
Perhaps the greatest potential benefit of an International effort is mission longevity. Over the past few decades, numerous missions and programs have been cancelled because of budgetary pressure, political wrangling and lack of unity of purpose. If ISS had remained an American-only mission, it almost certainly would have been cancelled back in the 1990s. Because it was based on international agreements and treaties, it was much more difficult to cast away and so the mission endured. A similar structure could be created for a Mars mission -- a structure that will provide assurances that the mission can't be easily cancelled by any nation -- one that would build on the positive and negative lessons of ISS.
In the United States, a human mission to Mars is precisely what the nation needs -- and a majority of U.S. citizens agree. A recent poll sponsored by Explore Mars showed that over 70 percent of Americans believe that humans will land on Mars by the early 2030s and more than 65 percent believe that both human and robotic exploration should be pursued. When the same group of people was asked what percentage of the U.S. federal budget NASA accounts for, the average answer was 2.5 percent -- in reality, NASA accounts for less than half of one percent of federal spending.
Despite the troubling economic and budgetary times, there is clear support in the United States for human Mars exploration. In the same survey, participants favored doubling the NASA budget -- to a full one percent -- which would include a human mission to Mars. It is unclear what the level of support is internationally, but there would likely be solid support if a clear and sustainable mission plan is proposed.
It is time that the international community commits to a new mission -- one that will land humans on Mars by the early 2030s.
This and many areas of discussion will be addressed at the Humans to Mars Summit on May 6-8, 2013 at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.