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Monday, March 19, 2018

Mars beckons; let us boldly go

Dollops from Dixie by Jason Stuart

The time has come to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Monday’s announcement by NASA that there is liquid water on Mars is, without question, one of the greatest scientific discoveries of our time. And now, more than ever before, the Red Planet beckons us to come in person.

NASA has achieved a great deal over the past two decades with its robotic explorations of Mars. However, for all their technical sophistication, robotic probes have their limitations, especially when it comes to exploring the surface of a planet. For all their accomplishments, the Mars rovers and other probes simply lack the mobility, adaptability and intuitiveness of human beings. 

With the discovery that there is liquid water on Mars, it raises the prospect that there could be life. Of course, we’re talking more little green cyanobacteria here than little green men, but now the possibility of discovering lifeforms on an alien world looks more like science fact than science fiction. And that prospect — which would arguably be the greatest scientific discovery in human history — demands that we put “boots on the ground.”

Going to Mars won’t be easy, or cheap, or without significant danger to the intrepid souls who volunteer for the mission, but everything screams that now is the time for the United States to put planning for a manned Mars mission into warp drive.

Public interest in space exploration — and Mars in particular — is starting to reach a level it hasn’t seen in decades, and Monday’s stunning announcement will only whet the public’s appetite for more, which means widespread public support for a manned mission to Mars should begin to mount.

Americans, by and large, I believe, want to go to Mars, and they damn sure want to be the first to get there. 

Besides that we now know there’s liquid water on Mars, which opens the possibility of finding life there, there is another, more prosaic reason we should ramp up our planning for a manned Mars mission: America could use the win.

Sending a manned mission to Mars could help unite Americans at a time when the country is at its most fractured since the dark days leading up to the Civil War. It could help give all Americans a sense of pride and ownership in their nation and a belief in what we can accomplish by working together that is more and more lacking. 

Let’s face it, since winning the Cold War, America hasn’t had a whole lot to crow about. Successfully completing a manned mission to Mars would be a crowning achievement that would (peacefully) prove to Americans themselves and the world at large that the United States is, indeed, exceptional amongst the nations of the Earth.

A half century ago, the Apollo Program helped do that very same thing. Landing a man on the moon was a monumental achievement which benefited America to no end. Landing American astronauts on Mars would be orders of magnitude greater.

By and large, we have the technology. The Orion spacecraft, designed from the start with a Mars mission in mind, had its first orbital test flight (unmanned) this past December, which went off without a single hitch. NASA is in the process of building the most powerful rocket ever conceived of by man, capable of lifting the equipment necessary for a Mars mission into space. That rocket should have its first test flight before the end of this decade and be ready for service by the early 2020s.

There are technological puzzles that still need to be solved, but we are much better positioned to make the leap to Mars today than when President John F. Kennedy announced to the world in 1962 America would send a man to the moon before the decade was over. 

NASA hit that mark, despite having to solve a litany of seemingly impossible technical problems on the fly. Making it to Mars by 2030 is definitely within our capability, if only we apply ourselves to the task.

All that’s holding us back from going to Mars, it seems, is the political will. And here I challenge our nation’s leaders to step up and take charge. 

Our president — whether it’s our current one before he leaves office or the one who follows him — needs to take a cue from Kennedy and boldly declare to the American people and the world that, to borrow Kennedy’s words:

“We choose to go to Mars in the next 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 we intend to win.”

Jason Stuart is a staff writer for the Glendive Ranger-Review. He formerly served as legislative aide for NASA policy to U.S. Senator David Vitter and helped draft the NASA Reauthorization Act of 2010.

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