President Obama on Tuesday renewed the bold goal, first set by him in 2010, to send a manned spacecraft to Mars by the 2030s — “with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.”
The history-altering trip, if it happens, will be the result of an unprecedented public-private partnership between NASA and one or more commercial space ventures that have thrived under the Obama administration’s approach to space travel.
In an article published by CNN on Tuesday, President Obama writes:
“Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators, and we’re already well on our way. Within the next two years, private companies will for the first time send astronauts to the International Space Station.
“The next step is to reach beyond the bounds of Earth’s orbit. I’m excited to announce that we are working with our commercial partners to build new habitats that can sustain and transport astronauts on long-duration missions in deep space. These missions will teach us how humans can live far from Earth — something we’ll need for the long journey to Mars.”
Indeed, several companies have announced their plans to participate in the Mars adventure. Last week, Boeing CEO Denis Muilenburg declared: “I’m convinced the first person to step on Mars will arrive there riding a Boeing rocket.”
Last month, Elon Musk, head of SpaceX, unveiled plans for planting a colony on Mars. And Orbital ATK is building rockets for a Mars journey. So is Blue Origin, a space company owned by Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos.
NASA recently issued a statement applauding “all those who want to take the next giant leap — and advance the journey to Mars.”
It is awe-inspiring. But in 2014 the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Science, issued a cautionary report calling for a clearer focus and substantial additional funding for the Mars project.
In the congressionally mandated study, it warned:
“Pronouncements by multiple presidents of bold new U.S. ventures to the Moon, to Mars, and to an asteroid in its native orbit … have not been matched by the same commitment that accompanied President Kennedy’s now fabled 1961 speech, namely, the substantial increase in NASA funding needed to make them happen. In the view of many observers, the human spaceflight program conducted by the U.S. government today has no strong direction and no firm timetable for accomplishments.”
The sad reality is that NASA, like the Pentagon and all other functions of the federal government, is under congressional orders to cut spending in order to provide room for more growth in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The Affordable Care Act, in effect another unsustainable entitlement program, adds to the fiscal challenge as the record national debt soars toward $20 trillion.
That ground-bound bottom line will increasingly hamper efforts to extend our space-travel reach.
So until Congress and a new president are ready to get the federal government’s balance sheet in much better order, the American dream of putting people on Mars will remain stuck on the launching pad.
— The Post and Courier of Charleston, Oct. 12