On July 20, 1969, astronaut Neil Armstrong took “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
But since Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, humanity has not taken the next step.
In the time since, NASA has launched and retired the space shuttles, built the International Space Station to conduct experiments in near-earth orbit, and deployed the Hubble Space Telescope. But Mars so far has only been explored by robotic rovers. There is no footprint in the red dust.
As Americans celebrate the 50th anniversary of those first steps this weekend, some question why the U.S. human space program hasn’t conquered the technical and biological challenges of extended spaceflight that a manned trip to Mars would require. Somewhere, the urgency to push humans further out into space subsided.
One of the biggest obstacles has been a lack of public support, said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a NASA historian.
“Back in 1960 when the president made a big speech, people really bought into that,” McDowell said. “But I think with things like Watergate and all that, in this age there’s a lot less deference to authority. You have to build broad political consensus, and that consensus is not there in the current political atmosphere where anything that one party wants the other doesn’t.”
A hefty price tag — estimated at hundreds of billions of dollars — has hindered the project, McDowell said.
“I think it’s a question of the national will. This is not going to come with a profit, the profit will come centuries from now and I think it’s too expensive for billionaires to just do it,” he said. “I think the price tag for Mars is beyond them.”
There also is considerable disagreement in the space community about how exactly astronauts should get there.
NASA has been developing the Space Launch System — a deep space exploration vehicle that would be the biggest rocket made since Saturn V — since 2014, in order to make the mission possible. However, McDowell said that due to its lack of reusable technology, some experts want to launch several SpaceX rockets instead.
“It’s embarrassing that its taking so long to develop,” he said.
In 2016, former President Barack Obama directed NASA to plan on getting astronauts to Mars sometime in the 2030s.
In a speech on July 4, President Trump expressed the same interest, directing his comments toward Apollo program flight director Gene Kranz, who was in attendance.
“Gene, I want you to know that we’re going to be back on the moon very soon, and, someday soon, we will plant the American flag on Mars,” Trump said. “For Americans, nothing is impossible.”
Trump has pledged to give NASA an additional $1.6 billion to get back to the moon and then to Mars.
McDowell said that despite the obstacles, he predicts a manned mission to Mars could be a reality by the late 2030s.
“In the long run it’s a good idea to be on more than one planet, because one planet can be vulnerable,” he said.
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