Going Nowhere: Give NASA the Destination MARS!

From an essay in the Spring 2010 print edition of “The New Atlantis,” an article titled Going Nowhere by Robert Zubrin, President of the International Mars Society:

“The shuttle-era record is [not] impressive; it resulted in no new technologies of importance and reached no new destinations — despite the fact that the agency’s budget for the past twenty years has been approximately the same, in inflation-adjusted dollars, as that which it enjoyed during the Apollo period. In the Apollo Mode, NASA’s efforts are focused and directed; in the Shuttle Mode, the space agency’s efforts are random and entropic, shuffling along without a purpose, always buffeted by political winds.

Without the guidance supplied by a driving mission, under the new Obama space policy, another ten years and more than a hundred billion dollars will be spent by NASA’s human spaceflight program without achieving anything significant. We may take part in another twenty flights to low-Earth orbit, but there is no new world there to explore. Together with the Russians, we have already flown there some three hundred times over the past half-century. Spending a king’s ransom to raise that total to three hundred twenty hardly seems worthwhile.

But it must be remembered that NASA’s average annual budget from 1961 to 1973, during the years when the agency flew all the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab missions, as well as scores of lunar and interplanetary probes, was about $19.7 billion (converted to today’s dollars). That figure is very close to NASA’s current budget.

Mars is the closest world that truly has the resources needed for human settlement. For our generation and those that will follow, Mars is the New World.

Four decades of stagnation in space is enough. If any progress is to be made, a course must be set. Leadership is required. President Obama should reject the timid proposal his administration floated in February, which would mark the end of the American human spaceflight program, and should instead take the side of audacity and hope — by committing NASA to reach for Mars in our time.”