1. Send astronauts to Mars
"The logical next step is a mission to Mars, but America's probably not ready for that yet," says former Administrator Goldin, now a senior fellow at the Council on Competitiveness. We respectfully disagree. Why is it time to go to Mars? For the same reason we went to the moon: to be first, and to see what's there. Without exploration, the United States itself wouldn't exist. "If you don't think humans are born to explore, watch a 1-year-old learning to walk," says Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science.
Admittedly, there are plenty of places left to explore here on Earth. We've mapped the moon better than our own oceans, for example. But to understand our place in the universe, we must continue to explore outer space. Mars, the planet in the solar system most like our own, is the obvious next destination. Conditions on most other large objects within reach are too inhospitable for even a short visit, let alone permanent habitation.
It isn't as though NASA hasn't talked about going to Mars-even drawn up preliminary plans and forecast launch dates. But the agency has yet to demonstrate a serious commitment to a manned Mars mission, and has therefore been unable to build the public support and political will necessary to make it happen. We're probably further from Mars today than we were in 1989, when President George Bush Sr. called for a manned mission to Mars by 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Apollo landing. No subsequent administrations, including his son's, have carried the torch.
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced before a special joint session of Congress the goal of sending an American to the moon before the end of the decade. Eight years later, Neil Armstrong stepped off the Lunar Module's ladder and onto the moon's surface. Mars, however, will be a more complex challenge.
For one thing, it's 48 million miles away, on average-200 times farther than the moon. With existing technology, it will take months to get there, not the four days it took to get to the moon. On the way, the astronauts will face dangerous radiation, bone loss, and the rigors of living in a confined space with no privacy. When they arrive, nobody will be there to carry them off the ship on stretchers. And once on the Martian surface, the astronauts will need spacesuits that are designed to last for six months. The Apollo suits were made to last four days and then be discarded.
"We want to do more than send men and women to Mars," says Weiler of NASA. "We want to get them back safely."
Going to Mars is not only going to be difficult-it's going to be expensive. "Most Americans probably don't remember that the Apollo program ate up about 4 percent of the (nation's) total budget," Weiler adds. Meanwhile, the entire current NASA budget is now less than 1 percent of the national total. And even if money were unlimited, it will take years to develop the necessary technology. NASA's Mars plans won't be taken seriously until the agency lays out the logical progression of steps that must be taken and attaches realistic dates to them.
Once NASA establishes that its overarching goal is to reach Mars-say, within a generation-then other pieces of the space program will begin to fall into place. Research on the space station will focus on learning the biological effects of long-duration space travel. Unmanned probes will lay the groundwork for a future manned landing. And engineers will have a likely destination for the next-generation space vehicle. A commitment to Mars will refocus the agency and give it a sense of mission.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.