The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 

 
Mars exploration illustration
While human exploration of Mars may not appear to be a near-term issue, Congressional language now banning spending on such efforts could have serious implication for NASA’s exploration programs overall. (credit: NASA)

Why “Save Mars” is worth the effort

Over the past few months, I’ve seen innumerable comments on the merits of The Mars Society’s “Save Mars” efforts. For those who are not familiar with this campaign, Mars Society members have sent thousands of letters and faxes and made a large number of phone calls to prevent the House language, which would prevent NASA from using any money on programs exclusively intended for human Mars exploration, from ending up on the final fiscal year 2008 budget. While many of the comments have been supportive, others have been critical, stating that since the language targets “only” Mars-exclusive programs, it doesn’t really impact the program in the short-term; “short-term goals should be the priority.”

In some respects, I understand their criticism. Will this language have a dramatic effect on the program in the next fiscal year? Probably not. However, this issue is far more complicated than some would have you believe.

The shifting status quo

Once the language appears on the budget, it becomes the status quo and is far easier to maintain by opponents of human spaceflight. In short, once it is on the budget, I think we will have a much more difficult time trying to keep it off in future years—when it will inhibit the full scope of the program.

And that is precisely the point.

This seemingly minor change in status quo—a change that may barely be noticeable in FY08—is a dangerous act of containment. If we hand the opponents of Mars exploration an easy victory, it is highly likely that they will continue to shift the status quo again next year and the year after that.

In the late 1990s, I sat in the office of a Massachusetts member of Congress. He told me that he had always been a supporter of NASA and he had a strong record of voting for robotic missions. He then went on to say that human spaceflight was a waste of money. While I have no way of knowing how enthusiastic he really was about robotic missions, I realized at that moment that he was far more dangerous than someone who loudly screams for the abolition of NASA. This Congressman was an expert at maintaining the status quo (this meeting took place in days when NASA was not allowed to investigate human space programs that involved leaving low Earth orbit). The Congressman from Massachusetts was smart enough to know that it would be a “fool’s errand” to call for the complete elimination of NASA. However, maintaining the status quo was the shrewd way to restrict any expansion of NASA.

Now the order of the day is containment of NASA—and changing status quo if they can get away with it. This seemingly minor change in status quo—a change that may barely be noticeable in FY08—is a dangerous act of containment. If we hand the opponents of Mars exploration an easy victory, it is highly likely that they will continue to shift the status quo again next year and the year after that. Soon, not only Mars exploration will be threatened, but the Moon and other things. Perhaps I am being an alarmist, but one thing is certain: it will be far easier to deal with this issue before it becomes status quo.

Presidential influence

I’ve also heard that it doesn’t really matter if this language passes or not, because the next president will have a new space policy. Very true: the next President of the United States will certainly come with an entirely different perspective toward space exploration. Senator Hillary Clinton has already released a fairly detailed space policy, one that implies that she will be a big supporter of space exploration. However, this policy is a little vague on details concerning what happens after NASA finishes the new launch and crew exploration vehicles. Whether the next President of the United States is a strong supporter of Moon, Mars, and beyond is certainly going to be the key contributor to the progress of this program. However, it certainly does not help us if a key part of that program is threatened and the space advocacy community doesn’t fight for it. This reality is magnified by the fact that most of the viable candidates are members of the United States Senate. Candidates are required to keep complete separation between their Senate offices and their campaign offices, but it would be foolish to think that they don’t keep a close eye on their Senate mail on which programs have a strong and active constituency base and which ones don’t.

You see one space letter, you’ve seen them all

While there are a number of space-savvy staffers on the Hill, the reality is that in most Congressional offices, these letters and phone calls will be categorized as pro-space/NASA letters. It won’t matter as much that we are opposing a small piece of text in the budget, but that we are supporting NASA and their goal to return to the Moon and then go on to Mars. As such, it is never a bad thing to get members of the space advocacy community mobilized. It is a vote of confidence for the entire program.

In the end, support for the “humans to Mars” part of the program is support for the whole program. Mars helps protect all that comes before it. As long as humans to Mars remains one of the primary parts of NASA’s plans, all the earlier hardware and destinations are in a much safer position.


Home