It's Moon, Mars or Bust All Over Again

04/15/2014 03:49 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2014

Most people don't know it, but there is something called the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), consisting of representatives of 14 national space agencies, including NASA, ASI of Italy, CNES of France, CNSA of China, CSA of Canada, CSIRO of Australia, DLR of Germany, ESA of Europe, ISRO of India, JAXAo of Japan, KARI of South Korea, NSAU of Ukraine, Rosaviakosmos of Russia, and UKSA of the United Kingdom.

The group was set up in response to a report issued jointly by these agencies in May 2007 called "The Global Exploration Strategy: The Framework for Coordination." The goal of the report was to articulate "a shared vision of coordinated human and robotic space exploration focused on solar system destinations where humans may one day live and work."

Although theoretically the focus of the vision is on the solar system, in general, it's understood that the primary aim is Mars. In that spirit, the agencies have now apparently agreed on a sort of broad plan for human exploration (and perhaps even colonization) of that planet. The plan is called the "Global Exploration Roadmap" (GER). The problem is that, while everyone on the ISEGG agrees on human exploration of Mars as a long-term goal, there is disagreement on the exact path,or roadmap, for getting there. Some members of the group such as NASA want to go directly to Mars, while others prefer a more step-by-step approach, first focusing on human exploration (and possibly colonization) of the Moon and then eventually moving on to Mars.

This debate is not a new one. It is precisely the same debate that took place following President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) announced on January 14, 2004. The VSE envisioned returning humans to the lunar surface by 2020 and using the Moon as a stop-over point in preparation for human missions to Mars.

To elaborate the details of how the VSE should be implemented the Bush administration appointed the President's Commission on Moon, Mars and Beyond, chaired by former astronaut Edward "Pete" Aldridge. Members of the commission included Carly Fiorina of Hewlett Packard, Michael Jackson of AECOM Technology, Laurie Ann Leshin of Arizona State University's Center for Meteorite Studies, former commander of the Air Force Materiel Command Gen. Lester Lyles, Paul Spudis of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Neil deGrasse Tyson of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, Robert Walker of Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates, Maria Zuber of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Steven Schmidt of NASA.

The VSE, in turn, was a recreation of the effort undertaken in 1989 when President George H. W. Bush came up with his Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) and appointed Vice President Dan Quayle to lead the National Space Council in putting some meat on the initiative.

Ultimately, neither the SEI nor VSE went anywhere. God knows how much money was wasted on these programs. Wasted because both of them were motivated primarily by politics and nationalism, rather than serious commitments to scientific research and space exploration. Both programs were designed mainly to excite the public about US leadership in space. Both failed miserably, and now a quarter of a century after the SEI and a decade after the VSE, we have nothing to show for these wonderful visions except... yet another acronym, the GER.

If the US government is at all serious about human space exploration, be it in the form of a Moon-Mars combo or a straight shot to Mars, then it will have to appropriate some serious funds for NASA. NASA's annual budget is less than $18 billion. No one really knows what a manned mission to Mars will cost -- much less a series of them and an eventual human settlement of the planet. The charming figure $100 billion has been tossed around, but the truth is that nobody knows. What we do know is that cost estimates for any sizable space program undertaken by NASA are almost always woefully low -- by a lot.

The International Space Station (ISS) was initially estimated to cost $10 billion to build, launch, and assemble in low earth orbit. It ultimately cost more than $100 billion. That offers an inkling of just how off government estimates can be. (Note that, even with all the additional spending on it, the station is not being used to perform the kind of scientific research or commercial manufacturing for which it was first designed.)

So if we're serious about human exploration of Mars (or even the Moon), then we have to come up with realistic estimates, factoring in all kinds of unforeseen costs. And we then must give NASA the money it requires to get the job done right, without all the political pressures and flag waving distractions. Otherwise, the government should allow private industry to lead the way and decide how best for humans to leave Earth, where they should go, and why. Often times, in the development of new industries, new markets, and new frontiers, government is much better suited to the role of facilitator... and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.