One small step for man, one tiny crawl afterwards

47 years after the moon landing, the United States is no closer now to landing on Mars than it was then.
47 years after the moon landing, the United States is no closer now to landing on Mars than it was then. AFP/Getty Images

Last week, China announced plans to land a rover on Mars by 2020. Russia’s space agency is working with the European Space Agency. Every major world power has interest in Mars. Like 1961, when Russia first rocketed Yuri Gagarin into orbit and the U.S. was afraid that Russians would beat us with the first man on the Moon, the race is on.

The U.S. should again set its priorities to one day be able to claim it first stepped foot on the Red Planet. Unfortunately, we’re not doing this.

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, Americans were certain that in the not-too-distant future, an astronaut would land on Mars. 47 years after the moon landing, the U.S. is no closer to that goal.

The U.S. still has its eyes on Mars – at least that’s what the government leads us to believe. Astronaut Scott Kelly was back on Earth after spending 340 days in space on March 2. His year in space was part of a NASA study of him and his twin brother, Mark, a former astronaut, on space travel and the human body in space versus on Earth. This was in preparation for a theoretical Mars mission.

The problem is, there has been no mission to Mars. For nearly 50 years and counting since we landed on the moon, there has been a manned mission-to-orbit circling 200 to 300 miles above us, and an unmanned mission to other planets.

Mark Kelly and Col. Terry Virts, a former Air Force pilot, attended a presentation in person on the Mars mission at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 15. Mark’s brother, Scott, spoke at the event, live from the International Space Station.

There is a “lack of political will” to generate public support for funding, Kelly and Virts said. We have spent nowhere near what we need to accomplish manned science in other parts of our universe.

NASA’s budget has stayed at less than 1 percent of the federal budget for more than 30 years after reaching its peak of almost 4 percent under President Richard Nixon, when we stepped on the moon.

NASA advocates have tried. But the Constellation human-spaceflight program was removed from the 2010 NASA budget request, and has disappeared since, even though President Obama predicted a U.S.-crewed orbital Mars mission by the mid-2030s, preceded by an asteroid mission by 2025. Liberals typically block space programs to better spend money “at home.”

Virts said technology has promise in a Mars journey. He also said that based on the progress between 1961 and 1969, landing on Mars is not far-fetched. But it can be done only with a green light from Congress and the White House, which hasn’t happened since Nixon.

The central question inspiring Earthbound humans remains: Is there, or was there ever, life elsewhere in the solar system? Earth is the only planet that possesses life that we know. But that does not pass our common-sense test, which is why millions either did see UFOs or believe they did. Whether life is possible on another planet attracts scientists and everyone else.

And then there is commercialization. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich ran for president and called for space colonization. Maybe that’s not the best reason to go there.

Neil Armstrong famously declared that his landing was, “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” That joy of pure science and exploration is a great hope. However, since those first steps, the U.S. has barely crawled toward anywhere else.

Robert Weiner is a former spokesman for the Clinton White House. Lile Fu is policy analyst at Solutions for Change. Ben Lasky is senior policy analyst at Solutions for Change.