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Do We Have a Mandate for Mars?

The exploration of the planet Mars has received a great deal of publicity over the past few years, and human missions to the Red Planet seem far more inevitable today than ever before. Yet, despite the groundswell of interest in Mars, some have argued that we don't have a mandate for humans to go to Mars any time soon. Are these skeptics correct?

First of all, it might useful to define what "mandate" means. According to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, the simple definition of "mandate" is (1) an official order to do something, or (2) the power to act that voters give to their elected leaders. Does Mars exploration satisfy either one of these requirements?

Official Policy: From a policy perspective, the case for "humans to Mars" seems to more than adequately meet the requirements to be a mandate. Sending humans to explore Mars is not a new goal for the United States space program. It has been a priority since the days of the Apollo Program, and it has been NASA's official goal under multiple Administrations (including the current Administration), as reflected in the NASA Authorization Acts of 2005, 2008, and 2010. Most recently, the U.S. House of Representatives, in Section 202 of the NASA Authorization Act of 2015 [H.R. 810 - (2015-2016)] stated that, "Human exploration deeper into the Solar System shall be a core mission of the Administration. It is the policy of the United States that the goal of the Administration's exploration program shall be to successfully conduct a crewed mission to the surface of Mars to begin human exploration of that planet...".

Is there "universal" political support for such missions? Of course not, as no policy or issue ever has universal support. If universal political support were the standard that needed to be met in order to achieve a "mandate", it would be impossible for any policy or issue to have a mandate.

NASA and Industry/Commercial Support: Even though our elected officials have provided a clear long-term mandate for Mars exploration, do the people who would actually orchestrate, build, and execute programs and missions to Mars support the goal? The answer is an unqualified Yes. Support for human missions to Mars at NASA and among industry and commercial players has never been stronger. While NASA still needs to provide more details on how we will land humans on Mars in the 2030s, NASA has embraced Mars as the primary goal for human space exploration, as evidenced by numerous statements by NASA AdministratorCharles Bolden, by NASA's recent publication of its Journey to Mars document
( www.nasa.gov/content/nasas-journey-to-mars ), and by the fact that NASA, in October 2015,started officially looking for actual candidate landing sites for the first human explorers at the First Landing Site/Exploration Zone Workshop for Human Missions to the Surface of Mars.

While much has been said about the competition between legacy industry players, such asBoeing and Lockheed, and more recent commercial players, such as SpaceX, there is a major area of alignment involving each and every one of them: All have publicly embraced the goal of sending humans to Mars within the next two decades.

20 Year Science Commitment: This year marks the 20th anniversary of the launch of the Pathfinder mission to Mars. This mission brought with it the first in a series of increasingly larger and more capable robotic rovers. Since then, the Mars Exploration Program has captured the imagination of the world and transformed our understanding of the Red Planet. As a result of our orbiters and rovers, Mars science discoveries have been consistently in the news, and in recent years Mars missions have become increasingly focused on how to enable human exploration. The old argument about whether we should send robots or humans to Mars has largely disappeared from the space community, as there is now consensus that we should send both robots and humans.

Public Support, Entertainment, and Public Perception: As shown by the 2013 Mars Generation National Opinion Poll (http://www.exploremars.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Mars-Generation-Survey-full-report-March-7-2013.pdf), the American public tends to be overwhelmingly supportive of Mars exploration when given budgetary context. When the public understands that NASA only accounts for less than half of one percent of the federal budget and that Mars missions would not require large increases in that small percentage, that support is clear. In fact, among the findings of this poll are that, given that budgetary context, 71 percent of Americans believe we will land humans on Mars by the year 2033, and 75 percent believe that NASA's budget should be doubled to 1 percent of the federal budget to fund initiatives including human missions to Mars.

In addition, Mars has permeated popular culture over the last few years. The best-selling novel,The Martian, and the acclaimed movie that followed, have garnered a huge amount of attention and excitement. Over the coming months other Mars-related film projects will also be released,including a six-part series called Mars that Ron Howard and National Geographic are producing; a feature film called, The Space Between Us, that will be in theaters this summer; and other similar projects. Mars is even all the rage in television commercials, as we have been treated to a very entertaining commercial about the 'Most Interesting Man in the World' who is going in his retirement on a one-way trip to Mars, and Mars has been the topic of discussion in innumerable television shows lately, including The Big Bang Theory, The Good Wife, and many more. Obviously, these popular culture references alone do not confirm a mandate, but in combination with the other areas of support, they are quite relevant.

It's Time to Move Forward Aggressively: Clearly, based on the examples above, Mars missions meet the standards of a "mandate". Many of these issues are also outlined in the 2016 Human to Mars Report (http://www.exploremars.org/the-humans-to-mars-report) that was released today at the three-day Humans to Mars Summit(H2M.ExploreMars.org) that is taking place in Washington, DC (see webcast here - livestream.com/viewnow/exploremars2016 ) - and where many of the most prominent experts from space exploration, policy, entertainment, and other relevant fields will clearly state that the next Administration should not change space policy goals, but should instead help to make the Mars goal a reality as efficiently, as cost-effective, and as timely as possible.

A reset in US space policy would benefit no one. We urge Congress and the Administration to take the necessary steps to assure that human landings on Mars actually become a reality by the early 2030s. As mentioned above, this will not require large increases in the NASA budget, but it will require additional funding in various critical areas in order to develop the necessary technologies. It should be noted that even Elon Musk of SpaceX (whose achievements are pointed to by some as a reason to call into question NASA's Mars exploration plans) has stated on more than one occasion that NASA's budget should be increased.

We live in an exciting time for space exploration. Over the next few years, we will see more amazing discoveries coming from Mars, and many important milestones will be met by NASA and its many partners on the path toward "humans to Mars". We are now actually on the verge of achieving what humanity has dreamed of accomplishing for millennia. Let's make it so.

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Chris Carberry is CEO of Explore Mars, Inc
RIck Zucker is Director of Political Outreach for Explore Mars.

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