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Big Idea: Start the Countdown for a Mission to Mars

Private companies are taking up the challenges of near-earth spaceflight, and a new space race is brewing. What better time for NASA to go to Mars?

When SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft docked on Friday with the International Space Station some 230 miles above the earth, it was the first time a commercial astrovessel performed such a complex maneuver in space. The age of commercial space travel, we are told, is here. As we reported last week, the link-up was a victory for both the Space Exploration Technology Company, founded in 2002 by serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, and the venerable National Aeronautics and Space Agency, which worked together symbiotically to produce this moment.

But unless we act soon as a country to raise the bar for space exploration, we may find it difficult to build on this success. That’s why we need to make it a public goal to send astronauts to Mars.

Doing so would boost our commitment to science and technology, make us more competitive on Earth, and help inspire humanity’s next steps to the stars. And in a time of global warming and potential asteroid collisions, shouldn't we make sure we have some options down the road?

While the Obama administration technically supports a manned mission to the Red Planet as NASA’s post-Space Shuttle raison d’etre, this year’s budget cut spending on a number of projects designed to pave the way by sending probes and robotic rovers to the planet; it looks like the U.S. will drop out of a joint Martian venture with European Space Agency at a time when momentum toward solar exploration is starting to build.

Abandoning those plans in the face of the economic troubles and federal budget belt-tightening would be a mistake. The $300 million cut to NASA is budgetary chump change, especially compared to budgetary boondoggles like the $21 billion in subsidies the highly profitable oil industry will receive over the next decade.

But we shouldn’t just be maintaining our investment in space, we should be increasing it to take advantage of all the benefits we could harvest.

First, there’s innovation. It’s hard to create new technologies if we’re not finding new problems to solve, and getting to Mars is a big one. NASA in its golden era helped develop more major commercial innovation than you can shake a stick at: cordless tools, smoke detectors, advanced plastics and metals, imaging technology. Even Silicon Valley helped get its start when NASA needed better chips for its computers. The agency’s advocates say that every dollar of investment in NASA has produced seven dollars' worth of benefits.

We Earthlings would feel the spin-offs of a big space push. Investing in major centers of science and engineering will increase the number of Americans with those skills, benefiting other industries and the economy at large. It’s not just about the money: Neil de Grasse Tyson, astrophysicist and space advocate, argues convincingly that Martian ambitions will inspire kids to learn the science and math skills that will help them in the new century.

All that may sound a bit pie, er, planet-in-the-sky, but the fact is that economic competitors like China are investing heavily in space technology—not just for symbolic reasons, but because they think it can drive their economy. With Russia talking about setting up a moon base, we may have another space race on our hands that the U.S. can't afford to sit out, especially when cooperative international space efforts help promote good relations on the ground.

The United States, however, still has an advantage, and it’s the same advantage that is making the SpaceX mission a success: private sector interest and skill.

The idea behind NASA’s partnership with SpaceX was to find a cheaper, more effective way to put people and things into orbit. While the technology to do this has existed since the beginning of the space program, a lack of scale and competition limited the refinement of this technology. By contracting this work out to SpaceX, which hopes to get more customers than just the government, NASA created an incentive for iteration while saving money, just like it did with silicon chips back in the day.

Theoretically allowing it to focus on tougher stuff—like putting people on Mars. Like research into new propellants and energy sources and figuring out how to ensure people can survive in strange new environments. Combining that fundamental research with more private partnerships, whether or directly or through more prize contests to encourage inventors, is NASA’s secret sauce.

After all, the last great age of exploration was driven by public-private partnerships. When European monarchs funded adventurers and state-chartered companies for the purposes of exploration and commerce, they benefited and the world changed forever.

There’s a lot we don’t know yet about Mars, and the urge to explore it is driven just as much by the romance of the next frontier than down-to-Earth data. But a mission to Mars could be the national project we need to help repair some of the differences between right and left, private and public, and regain some of the can-do attitude that made this country great. It took World War II to get us out of the Great Depression, but nobody thinks a war is a particularly good economic tool. Maybe a space race is.

Illustration by Bijan Berahimi

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