Could America be the first country to put humans on Mars? Should it be? And is it a race we can win?
As President Donald Trump takes office, that’s one of the many questions facing him and leaders in Congress about the future of our human spaceflight program and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
We believe the answer is—and must be—a resounding yes.
Human space flight is difficult, and space flight to Mars and back would be even more so. But successfully sending an American to Mars must be the centerpiece of NASA’s human spaceflight program.
With great pride and confidence, our new President and Congress should commit together to NASA sending Americans to Mars by 2033—a realistic goal consistent with the demands of both rocket science and political science. This date is also consistent with celestial mechanics, physics, engineering challenges that can be met, the support of key stakeholders in the public and private sectors, and a reasonable expectation of the investments Congress can provide.
When we Americans sent our countrymen to the Moon more than 50 years ago, leaders at NASA wanted the next destination in our solar system to be Mars. A human mission to Mars was proposed by NASA as the logical follow on to Apollo, but cost considerations and the fractious politics of the Vietnam Era put an end to that dream, temporarily.
Since then, the world watched as we flew our space shuttle for decades and then retired the program.
The world saw us play a central role in building and operating the International Space Station. The world saw us foster the rise of new entrepreneurial space companies that are now routinely delivering cargo to the International Space Station and are on track to send Americans to low Earth orbit in the next few years.
We hope the world will watch us be the first to send Americans to Mars and bring them home safely.
There are three clear reasons why Americans should explore Mars. For science, the now well-established presence of water and early habitability of Mars offers the chance to help answer a fundamental question: “Are we alone?” Finding even extinct Martian life would forever change the way we view ourselves. Second, a national push to go to Mars would require new technologies, goods, and services that would yield an enormous return on investment to our economy. With such an effort, the American space program could generate considerable economic activity and create many US-based jobs.
Third and most importantly, the European Space Agency, Russians, and Chinese continue to accelerate their human spaceflight programs. Americans must not cede the finish line. Our country should not wait until we receive the news that someone else has won the race to Mars for our leaders in Washington to ask, “How’s our space program doing? Why didn’t we get first place?” It will be too late. We must ask those questions now.
After all, history shows us that nations that fail to explore succeed in becoming stagnant.
America must explore.
And exploring Mars is achievable under reasonably expected future budget allocations for NASA. During the space race under President Kennedy and then President Johnson’s leadership, NASA claimed 4 percent of the overall federal budget. Today, NASA’s budget is 0.5 percent of the federal budget; the agency receives about $19 billion per year, of which about $8 billion is spent on human space flight. With the right approach and planning, including a potential handoff of the International Space Station to a commercial entity, these funds could be redirected for a successful human mission to Mars. Our leaders in Washington could speed up the timeline for a successful mission, and national victory, with additional investments.
The dream of sending people to Mars is alive. We need to make the program and strategy to do it a reality. The alternative is to give up, to take our players off the field, to concede the human exploration space frontier to other countries, and thereby guarantee defeat.
Could a person walk on Mars? And is that person alive today? On both questions, we have no doubt. The first person to walk on Mars is somewhere on our planet, possibly still in a classroom, pondering the heavens. They might already be a young adult unknowingly at the beginning of a great adventure.
The big question before us and our leaders in Washington is whether we will make the investments and develop the plan we need to ensure that budding explorer and soon-to-be pioneer is an American.