US Must Invest More to Remain on Cutting Edge of Space Exploration

Will NASA really get behind a Mars mission?

Earlier this year, six cosmonauts began a 500-day isolation test to see whether humans can endure the rigors of a trip to Mars and back. Last week, NASA announced it is planning something much longer-term: a 100-year Starship that would take a crew to Mars… and leave them there.

NASA is partnering with DARPA and is making overtures to philanthropists for a helping hand as well. Pete Worden, director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, said last week the agency hopes to “inveigle some billionaires to form a Hundred-Year Starship fund” because the program, though still only in its planning stages, currently has just more than $1.5 million in funding.

Worden said he has talked about the cost of a one-way trip to Mars with Google co-founder Larry Page, and Worden said he estimated the price tag at around $10 billion, to which Page replied, “Can you get it down to $1 or $2 billion?”

But the point is, attitudes are shifting at NASA, though the space agency will spend orders of magnitude more money monitoring climate change this year. Worden added, ‘The human space program is now really aimed at settling other worlds. Twenty years ago, you had to whisper that in dark bars and get fired.”

DARPA’s interest in the project is not surprising, given its high-profile success with its X-37b space plane, another program that started life as a NASA/DARPA project. Paul Eremenko, DARPA coordinator for the study, said in a press release the study is an attempt to “excite several generations to commit to the research and development of breakthrough technologies and cross-cutting innovations” and the study is “about more than building a spacecraft or any one specific technology,” but about a new way of looking at manned spaceflight.

If this program gets some philanthropic backing and NASA’s priorities continue to shift back toward manned spaceflight, America might be able to forestall its “long, downhill slide to mediocrity” in space flight, as Neil Armstrong put it earlier this year just before NASA officially canceled its moon mission. Since the European Space Agency is clearly looking at the Red Planet, why shouldn’t NASA?

After all, NASA has already spent billions of dollars to convince us climate change is going to destroy the world and billions of dollars hunting for habitable planets. Why wouldn’t they at least try to find a way to take us from point A to point B?  The only thing I can’t understand is why they only allocated $1.5 million to this project.  Still, it’s a start.

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