Destination Mars

Our View: The Space Program Has Been Stuck In Low-earth Orbit For Far Too Long

July 21, 2009

When Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar lander and became the first human to set foot on the surface of the moon 40 years ago this week, it was, as he announced, "one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

In those heady times it was widely assumed humanity had arrived on the verge of a new era of space exploration that would shortly lead travelers to Mars and beyond.

That did not happen, however: The race to the moon, which grew out of the Cold War military competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, had outlived its political usefulness by the time of the last Apollo landing in 1972. Since then human spaceflight has remained stuck in low-Earth orbit, having seemingly lost sight of the grander goal of inhabiting other worlds.

During that time, the space shuttle and the International Space Station have dominated the energies and budgets of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. To be sure, NASA has achieved some spectacular successes with its satellites and robots, including the Hubble Space Telescope, which vastly enlarged our view of the cosmos, and the unmanned rovers sent to Mars to map the planet's terrain, scout its polar regions for the presence of water hidden beneath the surface and test its soil for signs of ancient life.

Still, it's easy to feel that, four decades after man first walked on the moon, the promise of space exploration has taken a step backward and that its promise remains unfulfilled. Lacking the spur of a superpower arms race, NASA's budget and ambitions have been allowed to shrink, and even the decade-long program of manned missions to build a space station seems so far to have yielded little in the way of science that's important back home.

What's needed is a return to the soaring ambition and collective effort of a manned spaceflight program that serves a transcendent purpose beyond the jockeying for military advantage that characterized the Cold War arms race. We need a global vision of human destiny that matches our growing realization of the common stake we share in preserving the fragile environment of the tiny planet we presently inhabit - and one that responds to the imperative of leaving it eventually if we are to survive as a species.

That is why we need to go back to the moon, and after that to Mars and beyond. We are bound, it seems, either to fulfill humanity's age-old dream to live among the stars or perish entirely, notwithstanding the enormous commitment of treasure and energy such an undertaking would require. As a first step, we should again set our sights on Mars, with an eye toward discovering whether human settlement there is possible, as many researchers believe. That would provide a goal not only to inspire a new generation of scientists, engineers and explorers but also to secure the long-term survival of a human presence in our vastr and otherwise indifferent universe.

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