The planetary sciences seminar entitled "Exploration of Mars" (PTYS 195) was intended as an opportunity for students to discuss the advantages and the feasibility of a manned mission to Mars. As a participant in the weekly discussions, I learned of the motivation of the scientific community to study Mars closely, as well as the potential for utilizing natural resources on Mars. I also learned of possible methods for sending a manned craft to Mars, as well as the personal and logistical problems involved. However, our primary topic of discussion became why we are not yet prepared to send explorers anywhere beyond Earth orbit.
Many factors (technological, economical, political as well as public motivation) constrain the space program. Current technology severely limits how efficiently resources can be used and how safely humans can be transported in space. Mars is roughly 18 months travel time in conventional scenarios. In order to provide its crew with ample supplies, the spacecraft would be heavily burdened and cramped. The cost of the craft and of fuel would be tremendous. Our technology does not currently present a means of convenient travel across interplanetary distances, but studies have shown that it can still be done at great cost.
Presently, the space program focuses heavily upon use of the "reusable" space shuttle in near-Earth orbit. The dependance on the shuttle left NASA devastated in 1986 after Challenger was destroyed. NASA had to take time to reassess the basic premise of the space program. The timing for this incident was bad for the development of a manned Mars mission because NASA could no longer afford to engage in any projects posing extreme risks. Due to the lack of a balanced budget and a great shift in priorities over the years, NASA has come under the threat of greatly reduced funding. The NASA budget survives yearly, often suffering significant cuts, with a significant remainder consumed by the shuttle program. Congress plays the major role in the fate of the space program. Congress, as well as the general public, is very concerned that federal money should be used for attainable and visibly beneficial goals. Those who would not benefit directly from a large-scale space project would most likely not offer support for it.
Since the end of the Cold War, NASA has lacked a single well-defined mission. There is no longer any urgency in developing the manned space program to reach for goals beyond the Earth. Our government has failed to find sufficient justification for strongly funding the space program. Domestic issues such as burgeoning health care costs, unemployment, and the national debt threaten economic stability and make strong and secure funding for space exploration unlikely in the near future. As a matter of fact, the United States may not be in a situation financially to engage in any "non-essential" programs if the country is overcome by its debt.
Depending on who you ask, an "essential" program would be defined in many different ways. A mission to Mars might not provide tangible benefits to a majority of the people. At present Mars does not seem to offer sufficient resources to motivate industry into action, if in fact industry recognizes a path outside of NASA. Inhabitants of planet Earth are not in a hurry to find a place to move away from peril. Some would argue that only intangible science has to gain from a vigorous space program. No one else seems to have any motivation. I would argue that motivation is the deciding factor in any action: With the right motivation people will do amazing things.
Monumental motivation overcomes all hindrances to reaching a goal. However, the present motivation for any large-scale projects is very meager. NASA has neither the confidence nor the backing to aim toward a Mars mission. The political climate leaves the ground infertile for space exploration to grow solely through NASA; there is not a enough support from the upper levels of government or from the general public.
A manned mission to Mars is feasible but, clearly, the United States is not in an position to do it. Alone, the United States could not manage a mission to Mars, but in cooperation with Russia, the European Space Agency, Japan and China, each nation could share in the costs, as well as in the benefits. Collaboration must become the way of the future for missions of such complexity.
We need a cooperative space race, one motivated by the benefits to humanity that it would provide. NASA needs to be used for collaborating with other nations to explore space in the name of planet Earth. Daniel A. Washburn