From the Apollo moon landings to the International Space Station, America’s human space exploration achievements have inspired awe and admiration the world over. They have represented the best of the nation’s skill, ambition, and imagination. But however much these accomplishments have transcended their origins, they ultimately rest on a foundation of geopolitical conditions and considerations. It is difficult to imagine the Apollo mission without the Cold War and equally hard to conceive of the International Space Station without the end of the competition between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Today, the United States faces a set of geopolitical conditions and considerations that makes it possible to forge a new national consensus on human spaceflight. While the circumstances are not identical to those that bred Apollo or the International Space Station, there are powerful incentives for the United States to undertake a bold, difficult, and constructive national project in space to show that America is still a society capable of impressive feats that benefit all of humanity. At a time of widespread pessimism both at home and abroad, a commitment to an ambitious program of space exploration could provide a much-needed infusion of optimism and self-confidence in America’s ability to solve complex domestic and international problems.
Meanwhile, countries such as Russia and China are contesting America’s global leadership more strongly today than at any point since the end of the Cold War. Through their actions in Ukraine and the South China Sea, respectively, Moscow and Beijing evince a desire to return to the international norms of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: power politics, territorial aggrandizement, and ethnic nationalism. At the same time, new powers have emerged on the international stage, bringing their own space ambitions with them. India, for instance, has already placed a robotic probe in Martian orbit and plans to send humans into space, and the United Arab Emirates plans to launch its own robotic orbiter to Mars in 2020. Although the specific geopolitical circumstances have certainly changed, President John F. Kennedy’s assertion that “no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in the race for space” remains as true today as it was in 1962.
But if the United States is to remain the world’s leading spacefaring nation, it must first build a new national consensus on space exploration. This consensus ought to both move beyond the limited ambitions of the past four decades and be politically and financially realistic. An agenda that meets both goals is already taking shape, with agreement on a primary objective of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s—a feat that will not require the vast sums of money spent on Apollo. In fact, NASA has already outlined its plans for a journey to Mars. Additionally, The Planetary Society—a space exploration advocacy group founded by scientists Carl Sagan, Bruce Murray, and Louis D. Friedman—commissioned a proof-of-concept study that shows it is possible to meet this goal within NASA’s existing inflation-adjusted budget. Although many of the details of human missions to Mars have yet to be worked out—from designing a crew habitat for the months-long voyage to counteracting the psychological and physiological challenges that astronauts will face on the way—as NASA puts it, “Mars is a goal within our reach.”
While a human mission to Mars by the 2030s may be feasible if current NASA funding levels are maintained with inflation, a new national consensus on space exploration could help mobilize the modest additional resources necessary to increase the financial margin of error for such an ambitious goal. Even the budget of $21.1 billion that NASA received in 1995—adjusted for inflation to 2015 dollars—would offer a more reasonable funding model. That’s only about $2.5 billion more than the Obama administration’s fiscal year 2016 budget request for NASA, and it is far less than the roughly $38 billion that NASA would receive under astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s proposal to spend 1 percent of the total federal budget on NASA. These additional resources would allow NASA to send astronauts to Mars without crowding out funding for robotic explorers such as New Horizons, which encountered Pluto last July.
Similar to the International Space Station, a human expedition to Mars would provide an excellent opportunity for international cooperation and collaboration in space. Already, the European Space Agency is paying for and building the service module for the next flight of NASA’s new Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle—the spacecraft that will take humans to the moon and beyond. Sending humans to Mars should be a cooperative international enterprise instead of a competitive one. As it has for the past 20 years on the International Space Station, the United States should lead and work with others to expand the frontiers of human knowledge and ambition—all while investing in the high-technology sectors of its own economy.
In the end, an ambitious program of space exploration—both human and robotic—would provide an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate that it remains an optimistic, future-oriented nation. America can make this demonstration at only modest additional cost, should it assemble the national consensus and international partners necessary. If the United States takes advantage of the opportunities available today, Mars and the other wonders of the solar system are within the nation’s grasp.
Peter Juul is a Policy Analyst on the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress.