09/05/2012 09:00 am ET Updated Nov 05, 2012

Let's Not Wait for Utopia Before Sending Humans to Mars -- Some Additional Thoughts

In our post last week, we discussed the question: "How can we explore space when there is so much poverty in the world?" We determined that there is no merit in this question because a focused, goal-oriented space program can have a tremendous impact on STEM education, innovation, and national morale. In the long-term, it can actually reduce poverty levels by stimulating economic growth.

The piece stimulated a healthy level of discussion. As would be expected, opinions varied enormously. Many of the commentators agreed with the premise of the post and even provided additional arguments. One person stated that "Most problems on Earth are due to a bad distribution of resources, overpopulation, lack of technology or a combination..." and added that the first two of these items are not negatively impacted by exploring space and the third item could very well be benefitted because space exploration tends to "stimulate technological progress."

Several individuals viewed overpopulation as a key issue with regard to the future of space exploration. Some suggested that we should address this issue rather than explore space and others suggested that space exploration was the solution to world overpopulation. Neither of these opinions is practical, however. While space exploration may one day be able to provide a relief valve for the population on Earth, that scenario is far too distant in the future to make an effective policy argument for Congress and the administration. And, since the majority of worldwide population growth is outside the United States, a substantial redirect of the budget for this purpose would almost certainly prove futile.

One commentator stated that there is "no reason except ego to send humans to Mars. Or back to the moon...". It certainly can't be disputed that ego comes into play in human space flight. But frankly, there is nothing wrong with that. Ego probably played a part in Columbus trying to find a shorter route to the East, in Lewis and Clark's trek to the West, and in the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik... but those all turned out to have dramatic impacts on humanity as a whole. As mentioned in the previous post, our the nation is suffering from a self-confidence problem. An ego boost is something that the nation is in need of in this period in time. One could say that the moon landings were as much about ego as anything else, but at the same time that program provided a tremendous psychological, economic, and technological boost to the nation.

However, to say that ego is the only reason to go to Mars or the moon is false. The reader may not agree that our reasons for exploration justify the costs, but understanding the nature of life in the solar system (and universe) is a legitimate reason to explore. Observing other planets in order to better understand our own planet is a legitimate reason to explore. Finding out if humanity has the capacity of living somewhere other than Earth is a legitimate reason to explore. And, stimulating STEM education and innovation is a legitimate reason to explore.

The presidential candidates need to understand that science and technology education is a vital national interest. It is synonymous with a positive future.

In a recent CNN interview with the Director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dr. Charles Elachi, he emphasized the importance of science and technology when he stated, "That's what made us economically so powerful, because we are by far the best technologically, and space exploration was a trigger in making that happen."

A similar sentiment was expressed in a recent The Huffington Post piece by former NASA manager, Wayne Hale. He wrote that

"Exploration, discovery and the enthusiasm for the associated risks and demand for creative solutions are deeply rooted in the American character. When unleashed, these positive forces can assure a stronger, more vibrant future economy and provide opportunity for new personal prosperity when other urgent issues of this day are referenced only in dusty history books."

Perhaps the worst scenario would be if we were to leave NASA in a state of budgetary and programmatic limbo, but in many respects that is exactly what we are doing. Congress and the Administration have failed to set an effective and clear path forward. This scenario benefits nobody. Regardless of whether you support NASA or not, it is critical that we maximize the return on the dollars that we, as a nation, invest in our space program. Setting a clear and ambitious path forward will help to ensure that our investment in space will generate returns for generations to come.

December 14 of this year will mark the 40th anniversary of a sad event. This is the day that the last Apollo crew (Apollo 17) ascended from the surface of the moon. Let's hope that in the future this date will be viewed as only a gap in American crewed exploration beyond Low Earth Orbit -- not the end of our greatest achievement in space exploration.

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.