In 1961, President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress and told them to lift their eyes to the moon, because we were going to put men there within the decade. Kennedy’s words galvanized the nation and dropped a money bomb on NASA, which realized his vision in 1969. But with all the hardware we’ve got on other planets, the moon is starting to seem like it’s been done. According to President Obama in his new op-ed for CNN, the next frontier is Mars, and we should make a concerted national effort to put men on Mars “by the 2030s.”
The President himself intends to stay firmly planted on Earth, though. “Someday, I hope to hoist my own grandchildren onto my shoulders. We’ll still look to the stars in wonder, as humans have since the beginning of time,” Obama wrote. “But instead of eagerly awaiting the return of our intrepid explorers, we’ll know that because of the choices we make now, they’ve gone to space not just to visit, but to stay — and in doing so, to make our lives better here on Earth.”
It’s a timely message; Obama will host the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh this Thursday, October 13. Its explicit purpose is to “dream up ways to build on our progress and find the next frontiers.”
The thing about finding and settling the frontier is that this particular one takes infrastructure and education. Dreams are great and all, but dealing with hab modules and particle physics and electrical engineering requires some training — these aren’t the kind of things we can do relying on thought experiments or napkin math. We need facilities and materials, and workers who understand what they’re building. To stand on the shoulders of giants, one usually needs a bit of a boost first. Today, that ultimately means money.
Funding is an issue that will have to be addressed in the planning documents for this directive, in much less hand-waving terms. Rockets don’t just grow on trees. NASA currently accounts for less than a penny out of each aggregate federal dollar spent: less than one percent of the national budget. Say what you will about how NASA uses the money they’re allotted; at 4-6% of the national budget, which is what they had during the heyday of the space race, they established a space program that led the world. Maybe money can’t buy happiness, but it sure does buy heat shields.
But where is this Mars money going to come from, even if we do manage to get legislators to give NASA a little more scratch? It’s possible that we can look to projects like the buggy, expensive F-35; reallocating some funding between agencies need not compromise our aerospace superiority. There’s also the fledgling cooperation between the government (via NASA) and commercial space ops like SpaceX. President Obama remarks, “Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators.” While that does offload some of the financial outlay from public to private sector, we can’t necessarily rely on commercial space ventures to pick up the federal slack without a reason to do so. A cash infusion via commercial involvement with NASA would spur innovation, research, and development of the tech we’ll need to get to Mars.
Part of our national success in space — a large part — is that when we started out in the space race, we had laid out clear objectives, the funding plan to go with them, and a time stamp on the whole affair. JFK put his lunar ambitions to the nation as an intellectual argument, framed to capture what he saw as the best of America and elevate it to a cause. And he gave us homework. “By the end of this decade,” Kennedy said. None of this mealy-mouthed “2030s,” punting the project into someone else’s presidential backyard. Which end of the 2030s is this supposed to happen in? How are we meant to avoid the endless pushing-back of deadlines? Anyone who’s ever procrastinated can surely identify with the reasons a concrete deadline is important. A range of acceptable deadlines becomes one deadline: the latest one.
Whatever Obama ends up doing with his declaration and conference, it won’t get off the ground if the next sitting president doesn’t also sign on to the initiative. Obama only has a few months left in office. No matter who wins the election in November, either that person will support a Mars 2030 initiative with money or they won’t. But if they don’t, it’s likely that “by the 2030s” will be dead in the water by the end of next January.
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.