Decades ago, while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were first walking on the Moon, a panel of experts called the Space Task Group was putting together recommendations for what America should do in space next. One of those was a human expedition to Mars in the 1980s.
About a month after Armstrong and Aldrin returned from the Moon, the Space Task Group, which was comprised of some of the best scientific and technological minds of the time, duly presented their recommendations to President Richard Nixon and the nation. Besides humans to Mars, the Space Task Group recommended lunar bases, large space stations, and something called a space shuttle, which would be a reusable vehicle to take people and cargo to and from space.
The report of the Space Task Group made a brief flurry in the news. But already events were taking shape that would undermine any thought of carrying out the Space Task Group’s recommendations. By the end of the year, the flight of Apollo 20 was cancelled and the production line for the huge, Saturn V rockets was permanently closed down. Within another year, Apollo 18 and 19 were also cancelled.
It was touch and go for a while whether there would be an American manned space program at all after the last Apollo moonwalker returned home. President Nixon’s interest in space exploration wasn’t very great. Liberal Democrats in the Congress were pontificating about the immorality of spending a lot of money on space exploration while poverty, hunger, homelessness, and a lot of other social ills ground down the American people.
Manned space flight in America was saved, however, because President Nixon, while not very interested in space, was very interested in registered voters. And there were a lot of registered voters in big, electoral rich states like California, Texas, and Florida who, having worked their hearts out to put men on the Moon, were being laid off in the tens of thousands, many to finish their working lives sacking groceries and pumping gas.
The Nixon Administration asked itself, what was the bare minimum it could do to preserve a manned space program and thus be on the side of those registered voters and maybe at the same time do something useful in space? The Nixon White House poured over the recommendations of the Space Task Group and hit up the one about a space shuttle.
The idea was compelling. Classic space flight in the Apollo era consisted of throwing away most of one’s spacecraft in order to get to low Earth orbit. The theory was, build a space ship that could be reused over and over again, flown a lot of times like an airliner, and the cost of space travel would plummet. Then all of those plans for space stations, lunar bases, and Mars expeditions could be revisited by some future President.
President Nixon put the full weight of his political power behind the space shuttle program. Despite some fierce opposition in the Congress by left-wing Democrats such as Senators William Proxmire and Walter Mondale, funding for the space shuttle was approved.
Unfortunately, development funding for the space shuttle was slashed, its designed compromised, and the vehicle was asked to do things that no space vehicle could do. The space shuttle was supposed to convey to low Earth orbit every American payload, NASA, military, and commercial, do it cheaply, and do it often. It failed to do so.
Meanwhile, the 1980s came and went, and no humans went to Mars. So did the 1990s. And the 2000s. And the current decade. And so will the next decade and the decade after that. The earliest we can expect human footprints on Mars is in the decade of the 2030s, fifty years after the date the Space Task Group dreamed about.
So why haven’t we been to Mars yet? There are complex social, political, economic, and even technical reasons why not. The short answer, though, is that because not enough people wanted to do it.
An attempt by President George H. W. Bush to jumpstart human space exploration and, among other things, send humans to Mars died a horrible, political death. The current space exploration effort, started by the current President George W. Bush, met a better fate and more funding. But that program, which would have seen humans back on the moon by 2020 and on Mars sometime after that, was cancelled capriciously by President Barack Obama. Mars is still on the agenda, sometime in the far future.
Why haven’t we been to Mars yet? The official NASA line for going to Mars is to search for alien life, which means microscopic life. That’s certainly of interest to biologists, but mostly elicits disinterest among everyone else. Visionaries such as Robert Zubrin dream of human settlements on Mars, even a “second branch of human civilization.” The late Carl Sagan argued for such settlements as an insurance policy for the survival of the human race. Stephen Hawking has echoed that view.
So when do we go to Mars? Maybe 2035, suggests NASA. In ten years, if we really, really set about doing it suggests others. Never, insist still others, dubious of this whole humans in space thing.
And who goes to Mars? At first, probably NASA astronauts, along with international partners, in the grand old style, with the flag, the footsteps, the “Cydonia Base here, the Ares has landed”, and the rock and soil samples. But if recent history is any judge and if we really expect Mars to be a “second brand of civilization”, they’ll be other, private and commercial players. They will be adventurers, visionaries, zealots, and probably a few fools crossing the interplanetary gulf sometime later this century for new opportunities and maybe a new life on the Red Planet. It won’t be neat or tidy and, as Robert Heinlein once said, the weak will die along the way, and the cowards will never even go to start with.
The settlement of Mars could be a great epic of the 21st Century, an example of what humans can do when they really want to do it. The idea makes one very happy to be alive to see it, if only just the beginning.