We Americans are an optimistic bunch. Just compare Hollywood movies with foreign films, and you’ll see a big difference in worldview — we love it when the good guys win. I believe this difference goes all the way back to “Manifest Destiny,” the 19th Century belief that American settlers were destined to expand across the continent.
But when it comes to space exploration, Manifest Destiny doesn’t apply. And if we choose simply to rest on the laurels of being the first nation to send humans to the moon, or on the achievements of the Space Shuttle and International Space Station (ISS), we will be surpassed by nations whose people are “humble and hungry.”
As a former NASA astronaut who is troubled by our ever-shifting goals for space, I don’t want this to happen. If we don’t have a destination, we’ll never get anywhere. A decade ago, NASA was pursuing the Constellation program, whose goal was to develop a new space capsule and related systems that would ferry humans to the ISS before taking us to the moon and then to Mars and beyond. But Constellation was cancelled in 2010, ostensibly for budgetary reasons, and since then the U.S. has lacked a coherent strategy for human spaceflight. So I am proposing the following plan that ultimately would send humans to Mars. This plan sets concrete goals, and would inspire future generations of scientists and engineers and bring nations together to solve the many technological and political challenges we face here on Earth.
With these modest goals in mind, let us begin with past as prologue…
NASA’s moon program of the late 1960s actually played out over three distinct programs: Mercury, Gemini, and — last and most famous — Apollo. The initial phase, Mercury, proved that we could fly humans in space. Gemini, the least well known of the three programs, was even more critical. It created and tested the technologies that would be needed for the moon landings that were to follow. These included long-duration missions, spacewalking, the development of computers and software, and protocols for the rendezvous and docking of spacecraft flying in formation at thousands of miles per hour.
Finally, of course, Apollo was the fulfillment of President Kennedy’s famous charge that we should “land a man on the moon and return him safely to the Earth.” But again, Neil and Buzz and the men who followed them would never have made it to the moon without Mercury or Gemini.
I give this brief history because I believe the next strategy we pursue in space should parallel the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo model. First and most important, we need a vision. In the 1960s it was to put a man on the moon. Now it should be to send humans to Mars and back beginning in the 2030s, with increasingly long-duration missions to the planet’s surface. This vision is clear, and it goes beyond mere “boot prints and flags.” Long-term goals should be to understand the environmental, geological, and biological history of Mars, but also to set the stage for human settlements on the red planet.