Whenever I gaze up at the moon, I feel like I'm on a time machine. I am back to that precious pinpoint of time, standing on the foreboding—yet beautiful—Sea of Tranquility. I could see our shining blue planet Earth poised in the darkness of space.
Virtually the entire world took that extraordinary journey along with the crew of Apollo 11. We were supported by hundreds of thousands of American workers, the greatest can-do team ever assembled on the face of the Earth. That team was comprised of scientists and engineers, metallurgists and meteorologists, flight directors, navigators, and suit testers—as well as policy makers. So many devoted their lives and professional energies, minds, and hearts to our mission and to the following Apollo expeditions. Those Americans embraced commitment and quality to surmount the unknowns with us.
Fast forward to nearly 45 years later. Today, I see the moon in a different light.
America won the "moon race" more than four decades ago. We do not need to engage in that contest again. Instead, we should set our sights on a permanent human presence on Mars. There is no compelling reason that this can't be done, but great care must be taken that precious government dollars necessary for the great leap to Mars are not sidetracked to the moon.
Robotic exploration of the Red Planet—including the highly capable NASA Mars rover Curiosity—provides us a window on a world that can be a true home-away-from-home for future adventurers. Mars has been flown by, orbited, smacked into, radar inspected, and rocketed onto, as well as bounced upon, rolled over, shoveled, drilled into, baked, and even laser blasted.
Still to come—being stepped on.
The first footfalls on Mars will mark a momentous milestone, an enterprise that requires human tenacity matched with technology to anchor ourselves on another world. Exploring Mars is a far different venture than Apollo expeditions to the moon; it necessitates leaving our home planet on lengthy missions with a constrained return capability. Once humans are at distant Mars, there is a very narrow window during which they can return to Earth—a fundamental distinction between our reaching the moon and sailing outward to Mars. Therefore, we need to start thinking about building permanence on the Red Planet and what it takes to do that. It is a vision of the extension of humanity to Mars.
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