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One Year of Curiosity - Are We Any Closer to Sending Humans to Mars?

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One year ago, the world watched as the Curiosity rover was lowered to the Martian surface in one of the most spectacular engineering feats ever attempted. People assembled for special landing parties all around the globe; hundreds of people gathered after 1:00 a.m. in Times Square in New York to view the coverage of the landing on the jumbotron; and millions more viewed online. Since then, Curiosity has been sending back amazing data - providing solid evidence that Mars was once had suitable conditions to sustain life as well as providing amazing images with unprecedented resolution - and the mission has really only just begun.

Curiosity reminded us what we can be and what we can achieve as a nation. No other nation currently has the capacity to match that technological achievement. The public outpouring of excitement and support was clear and reenergized the question - When will we be sending humans to Mars? The public is hungry for a mission like this. Earlier this year, a scientific national public opinion poll was commissioned by Explore Mars, Inc., The Boeing Co., and Phillips and Co. that showed overwhelming support for human missions to Mars. Indeed, it showed that seventy one percent (71%) of Americans believe that we will land on Mars by 2033. From a technological perspective, this is an achievable goal, but budgetary obstacles and governmental indecision are preventing any major progress toward this goal.

Nobody can argue that we have significant budgetary challenges. Sequestration has impacted every federal agency. Despite this, we need to find a way to adequately invest in programs that can stimulate innovation, technology, and science. At less than half of one percent of the federal budget, NASA is not a major contributor to our budgetary woes, but it has a tremendous capacity to stimulate our economic growth. We're not even coming close to utilizing this potential. We're just shrinking NASA. No positive argument can be made for starving NASA to the point where it is unable to get anything done. That is certainly not a responsible way to utilize taxpayer funds. NASA is supposed to push the envelope of exploration and technology. It is not supposed to be merely a jobs program. We will waste some of the most talented people in the world as well as the potential for that agency to stimulate innovation, inspiration, and discovery - all of which are vital to American competitiveness.

However, if we want to send humans to Mars by the early 2030s, we can't do it with the model that we used for reaching the Moon. We will need more efficient ways of moving forward and to design architectures that can be accomplished with the assumption that NASA will receive flat funding for the foreseeable future. Partnerships with industry/commercial entities and well as international partnerships are essential - and in fact, there are a number of mission architecture plans designed by major players in the space community that could get us to Mars in the next couple of decades within a challenging budgetary environment, but that message doesn't seem to be getting through.

We are wasting the talent and passion at NASA and the broader space community. Our aerospace engineers and planetary scientists desperately want to send crews to Mars. Our international partners want us to lead an international mission to Mars. While our elected representatives can't agree on a strategy for getting us there, they now seem to agree that Mars should be the primary goal. And, the American people are strongly in favor human missions to Mars. Rather than making constant excuses for why we can't go, we need to collectively quote President Obama and say, "Yes we can!" and begin to plan one of the most significant programs in human history.

Chris Carberry is Executive Director of Explore Mars, Inc.