Three years ago this week, NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, better known as the Curiosity rover, touched down on the surface of Mars. It did so only after the now famous "7 Minutes of Terror," a harrowing journey through the Martian atmosphere, utilizing a revolutionary entry, descent, and landing technique never before attempted.
Curiosity's successful landing was one of the greatest engineering achievements in history, and it generated a tremendous level of excitement in the general public about space exploration that has not been seen for a very long time. Curiosity then began an epic mission of exploration and science, one that has transformed and is continuing to transform our understanding of the red planet.
Public interest in space exploration, however, has not waned since Curiosity's landing. Indeed, the recent flyby of Pluto by the New Horizons spacecraft, which also captivated the public, is proof positive of that. But the planet Mars captivates the imagination like no other and has always been the most compelling destination for human exploration. This excitement has begun to filter more and more into popular culture -- most notably illustrated by a recent novel and upcoming film.
Andrew Weir's novel, The Martian, has made a big splash over the past year -- and has achieved success through unconventional methods. First appearing as a self-published novel, The Martian quickly gained popularity, largely through word of mouth, until Weir found himself in the unlikely but enviable position of signing a book deal with a major publisher and signing a movie deal in the same week.
The film version of The Martian, staring Matt Damon and directed by Ridley Scott, is now scheduled to be released on October 2, and the early buzz indicates that it will be one of the most realistic space films ever produced. The Martian is a work of science fiction, but unlike many other movies and books of that genre, it is based on scenarios that are almost within our grasp in the near term.
Despite the depiction of life-threatening situations -- as in the real-life Apollo 13 story, bad things can happen -- The Martian represents a positive and very realistic future. It is a future that is based not on calamity on Earth, like the endless parade of dystopian, post-apocalyptic films of recent years, but on pushing the boundaries of our scientific and technical knowledge and on the perseverance of the human spirit.
The Martian has emerged at a significant juncture in our nation's space program. After over 50 years of talking about sending humans to Mars, momentum is finally building for humanity to actually achieve that goal. To be clear, the public is hungry for inspiring and ambitious national goals, but it is also justifiably hesitant due to concerns about cost and because so many of us have grown skeptical that we as a nation and as a species are still capable of doing great things.
Recent reports have shown, however, that human missions to Mars can be achieved within 20 years without large increases in the NASA budget; and that not only is this goal technically feasible but it is also affordable and sustainable. Indeed, when the public is shown the budgetary realities of space exploration (NASA accounts for less than one-half of one percent of the federal budget), they tend to be overwhelmingly supportive of our space program.
As theatergoers view The Martian this coming October, they will hopefully not only be entertained, but will also come to realize that missions of this nature (hopefully without this type of calamity) are not science fiction, but will likely come to fruition in the lifespan of most of their fellow theatergoers. After several decades of slow or limited motion outward, we are now about to embark on a new era in human space flight, but it is one that is not guaranteed because of politics and misinformation. Advocates for space exploration need to do a better job at dispelling the myths about space exploration, with the biggest and most damaging myth being that human missions to Mars will cost over $1 trillion. In reality, there is a growing body of evidence that such missions will cost only a small fraction of that amount -- with costs likely to be not much more than what NASA already receives in its annual budget allocations. Once budgetary context, growing bi-partisan political support, and the fact that Mars is currently the overarching goal of NASA's human space flight program, are all taken into account, supporting this goal should be one of the easiest choices confronting the American people in the years ahead.
As dozens of candidates vie to become the 45th president of the United States, let's hope that they will see this issue neither as a potential campaign ploy nor as a weapon in partisan warfare, but rather as a rare opportunity for non-partisan unity on our collective future. Those candidates, and the one who ultimately becomes our next president, can play a pivotal role in helping us see the day when the vision of humans becoming Martians becomes reality.
Chris Carberry is CEO of Explore Mars, Inc
Rick Zucker is Director of Political Outreach for Explore Mars, Inc.