Addressing Congress on May 25, 1961, President John Kennedy famously challenged the United States to land a man on the moon and bring him home safely. At the time, America — locked in an arms race with the Soviet Union, bursting with national pride, and looking starry-eyed toward the cosmos — was easily convinced of the moon’s profound importance. The public forked over $25 billion for the Apollo program, then one of the largest expenditures ever by a nation in peacetime.
After funding cuts, a drastic decrease in public interest and two space shuttle disasters, NASA is desperate to rekindle America’s love for space exploration. Many of NASA’s most famous names, including Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, are lobbying hard to convince Congress and President Barack Obama to earmark more funding for a manned mission to Mars. They claim a Mars program is paramount to the advancement of scientific discovery and the survival of the space agency.
Former President George W. Bush signed his Vision for Space Exploration into law in late 2005. It set milestones and appropriated federal dollars for a program slated to return astronauts to the moon and then, eventually, the red planet. As research from the project progresses, NASA and the public are quickly realizing that sending people to Mars is a much harder, longer and more dangerous endeavor than the 1960s moon missions. And of course, the biggest obstacle is cost.
Quoted in an article in the Telegraph this summer, Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, said, “With a few exceptions, we have the technology or the knowledge that we could go to Mars if we wanted with humans.” What we don’t have, between our tepid economy and the trillions of dollars of new government spending, is money to spare. It seems unlikely that NASA will be able to execute a Mars mission anytime soon — that is, unless we ignore the second criterion of Kennedy’s challenge.
A way to cut costs that is gaining popularity among space enthusiasts, and even high-ranking directors at NASA, is to send astronauts to Mars but not bring them back. A one-way ticket would eliminate the need to transport fuel for the return trip, for a system to escape Mars’s gravity, and for a vehicle that could withstand re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. The cuts would save the taxpayers billions and trim years, maybe decades, of preparation off the program’s estimated completion time.
John Olson, NASA’s director of exploration systems integration, noted in an interview with The Guardian that sending explorers on one-way missions is not new. “It’s really no different than the pioneering spirit of many in past history, who took the one-way trip across the ocean, or the trip out west across the United States with no intention of ever returning.”
Though I can’t imagine ever wanting to spend my final days alone on a dead, red rock millions of miles away from the nearest companion, I suspect many older space junkies, perhaps even Aldrin himself, would be thrilled to embark on such a historic journey. After all, we all will eventually die. Why not end life with the ultimate exclamation point of being the first person to walk on Mars? Humans are much more versatile than unmanned probes at conducting experiments on alien worlds. A human on Mars could help us learn about the birth of our solar system and the origins of life on Earth, and maybe even begin to develop Mars as a colony that could save our species if Earth ever becomes unviable.
Still, I just can’t support sending an astronaut to his or her death only to cut costs. Perhaps if a one-way ticket was the only way to send someone to Mars, I would think differently. The potential for boundless scientific discovery justifies a considerable amount of risk. But a no-return mission would ultimately send the message that an astronaut’s life is worth the amount of dollars and years saved by not devising a way to bring him home, and that’s wrong. Even in war, when civilian lives are at stake, the U.S. government does not send soldiers on missions with zero chance of return.
I think it’s wise to keep Kennedy’s words in mind as we reach out to our red, celestial neighbor. We chose to go to the moon and we choose now to go to Mars, not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard. Sending an American on a one-way mission to save a few billion dollars, even if the rewards would be great, is the easy way out.
Chris Koslowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.