Imagine, if you will, a multinational crew busily preparing for launch on the first human mission to Mars. As the days tick by, round-the-clock coverage streams across cable networks, computer screens and millions of cell phones. By the time liftoff is at hand, a million and a half people have jammed the Florida coast, creating gridlock for miles and breaking the internet.
As the countdown nears zero, billions across the globe hold their collective breath. A sudden flash, a plume of smoke and then a searing light completely envelops the launch pad. All is eerily silent for a few seconds as the shock wave rolls across the water. Then a low rumbling begins, followed by the reaction of onlookers as a wall of sound hits them squarely in the chest before building to a deafening roar. Slowly, America’s super-heavy rocket emerges from fire and smoke to clear the tower, shaking the Atlantic shoreline with power the world has not known since Apollo.
As days blend into weeks the crew goes about their routine, relaying back their lives over a 6-month journey through deep space. Finally, after a nerve-wracking but successful landing the hatch opens and the first human beings to set foot on another planet begin to walk on Mars. From millions of miles away, we watch as they work together to construct living quarters. A few days later they climb into a land vehicle and set off across the Martian landscape. Locating an ancient riverbed they steer into it, following as it opens into a valley where they disembark. Gloved hands feel along the eroded cliff walls as their eyes search for stratification. Chattering back and forth on helmet mics they huddle together, staring up at an outcropping of rock, trying to understand what it tells them about the planet’s history.
In a tough and hostile environment like Mars, survival comes first. Our crewmembers are careful, methodical, following their training and procedures. But burning hot on the heels of survival is their desire ― their need ― to see what lies over the next hill. And so, after chipping out a few samples of rock for later analysis, they eagerly press on.
Back on Earth, we share that need. Their hunger to learn is our hunger too. As our lifestyles grow more sedentary it is easy to forget that we are a species of wanderers. Every great civilization arising on our planet has sent out explorers and benefited in return. Many of these explorations were expensive, took decades and came at great risk with loss of life. Human arrival and survival upon Mars will be no different. But the journey also will generate global interest and open the door to scientific discoveries we can barely imagine ― including, possibly, resolving questions like “Are we alone?” and “Is there life on other worlds?” Among the planets of the inner solar system, Mars is most likely to hold the answers.
Lest all this sound like science fiction, be assured that it is not. NASA and other space agencies are working toward that future right now. All this may seem unreal, but that’s because we cannot reach Mars today. It’s difficult for us to think of what may happen across the decades that lie ahead. At the same time it would be foolish to dismiss such things because they are in the future. All great inventions, technologies and historic developments among nations were in the future at one time or another. Reaching Mars and laying the groundwork for permanent human life on its surface is a long-term yet achievable goal that fosters forward-looking policies, plans and perspectives. Such things are important for any society.
In a very real sense Mars is at the far end of the infrastructure we are preparing to revitalize in this country.
A major study conducted by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine concluded that Mars is the “horizon goal” for the human exploration of space, the destination upon which the aspirations of all international space programs converge. It is essential that this be an international effort, led by the United States in collaboration with others, beginning but not ending with our existing partners in the International Space Station Program. The ISS has taught us that a multilateral enterprise such as Mars will bring to the table intellectual capital, scientific abilities, research, engineering and interest in peaceful technology on the part of many nations. An international human Mars program, led by the United States and achievable within a decade with sufficient resources, would build and expand on the foundation created by the ISS with benefits to the entire world.
Why Mars? Why not the Moon? Simply put, Mars is the best place to develop a “local” infrastructure enabling us to live on another planet, albeit one millions of miles away. In a very real sense Mars is at the far end of the infrastructure we are preparing to revitalize in this country. NASA’s approach to Mars initially moves human beings out into the region of space between the Earth and Moon, establishing the first deep space living quarters there. Nations or companies wishing to visit the lunar surface may do so supported by the infrastructure NASA is building now.
The Moon may turn out to be an important stepping stone with geopolitical, scientific and commercial benefits, but it is not the end goal. In addition to the fact that it is more accessible to human life than the Moon, Mars is much more interesting in both scientific terms and in public engagement. It is a dynamic planet, with seasonally changing icecaps, the possibility of past or present life, and signs of past climate change that we should understand. Mars once had running water, broad lakes and warmer temperatures but is now locked in an eternal deep freeze. What might this teach us about the changing face of our own planet? If we don’t go, we won’t find out. We must not hesitate to act boldly in our own interest and in the interest of our species.
The development of human communities on Mars will be a powerful symbol of what we can achieve together.
Perhaps most importantly, our nation needs the next generation of eager, bright young scientists and engineers to advance our quality of life and remain globally competitive. In this rapidly changing world the citizens of the United States also need a far better understanding of science and technology in order to exercise fully the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. The very future of our democracy depends on it. Nothing stimulates interest like truly great goals that require us to develop ourselves and advance the human condition as well as our technology in order to achieve them. Mars is such a goal.
In a world too often fraught with tensions and violence, the arrival of human beings and the eventual development of human communities on Mars will be an important and powerful symbol of what we can achieve together. When nations cooperate peacefully toward a common goal, when entrepreneurs and citizen scientists and great institutions come together to address tough problems, it sends a powerful message to those who would seek to undermine free and open societies and return us to the dark ages. That said, human footsteps on Mars are not a panacea. They will not cure the world of its ills nor address the deficit of spirit that leads to madness in some of its more unfortunate denizens. And it will be a challenge to maintain long-term political interest in and commitment to this long journey.
But our nation has done such a thing many times before. The vision of humans on Mars, imagined for centuries, is now within our grasp. We owe it to ourselves, our country and our posterity to press forward toward this great vision of an optimistic future for humankind ― one that, once realized, will forever change our world for the better.