Humanity's advancement into space has not progressed quite as predicted. In the 1960s and 1970s, futurists, as well as science fiction movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey or the old campy television show, Space 1999, took it for granted that regular passenger flights, moon bases, interplanetary exploration, and other extraordinary advancements in space would be a reality before the end of the 20th Century. We have obviously fallen well short of that vision, but as fantastical as that speculation may seem today, it wasn't entirely based on wishful thinking or flights of fancy.
After the United States successfully landed humans on the moon, there were high level discussions at NASA and elsewhere that advocated for sending humans to Mars by the mid-1980s. In view of the truly remarkable speed in which America achieved the Moon landings, Mars by the 1980s didn't seem all that far-fetched at the time. Unfortunately, political reality interceded. After convincingly beating the Soviets to the moon and after only a few successful landings, funding for the Apollo Program was canceled, and instead the focus of the space program was shifted in a direction that would leave us circling in Low Earth Orbit for 45 years. Which brings us to the present day. Sending crewed missions to Mars by the mid-2030s is now an integral part of official U.S. space policy. Public discourse has swelled on this topic since the successful test of the Orion capsule this past December as well as the discovery of organics, nitrogen, and evidence of an ancient ocean on Mars. But, is this objective realistic or is this truly a case of wishful thinking?
Several factors have recently materialized that could finally set us on a course to Mars and elsewhere in the solar system. The first and perhaps most important factor is that there is far more consensus on Mars exploration than there ever has been before within NASA, within the aerospace community, and among policy makers. Not everyone agrees on how we will get there or where we will go along the way, but Mars by the mid-2030s is the majority consensus. A unified coalition of these players could have a powerful and lasting impact.
Recent polling also suggests that there is strong public support for human missions to Mars when actual NASA budget levels are understood by poll participants. One of the biggest issues commonly raised regarding Mars missions is whether we can actually afford to go to Mars. However, the answer to that question appears to be 'yes.'
Much of the opposition to Mars exploration is based on disinformation and distraction tactics that imply or even claim outright that Mars would bust the budget or endanger Social Security, which, given actual budgetary facts and context, is preposterous. Many aerospace experts believe that humans to Mars can be achieved without large increases in the NASA budget; indeed, that most increases would be attributable to the need to counter inflation. One can therefore argue that it would be fiscally responsible for NASA to commit to sending humans to Mars rather than spending a similar level of funding on less ambitious or constantly changing goals.
Timing and circumstances enabled President John F. Kennedy's call in the early 1960's for America to land a crew on the Moon before that decade was out to become reality. We can't replicate the circumstances that existed in that decade, and we shouldn't even try; for while Apollo was a spectacular success, it proved not to be a sustainable model for space exploration.
While presidential leadership is still important, we may not need another Kennedy-esque presidential speech. Momentum for Mars exploration is developing far more organically than other human mission objectives in the past. Rather than the program being dictated from top to bottom, we seem to be building (at least the overarching goals) from bottom to top. This is quite significant and may be the interplanetary 'missing link' that could create the political sustainability required for a long-term program. Indeed, these and other current topics will be the focus of the Humans to Mars Summit, taking place in Washington, D.C. from May 5 to 7, 2015.
Humans won't be visiting a nearby star or even the moons of Jupiter anytime soon, but we may finally have the opportunity to move out into space and on to Mars -- to explore, to discover, and to develop.
Chris Carberry is CEO of Explore Mars, Inc. Rick Zucker is Director of Political Outreach for Explore Mars, Inc.