Society

Obama's Space Goal: A Human On Mars By The 2030s

| by Nik Bonopartis
An artist's rendition of a SpaceX landing module arriving on Mars.An artist's rendition of a SpaceX landing module arriving on Mars.

As Will Ferrell's character in Zoolander might say: "Mars. So hot right now. Mars."

Just a few weeks after Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk said he'd get humans to Mars within six years, and a week after Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg added a competitive element to the race by saying his company would beat Musk's to the red planet, President Barack Obama has thrown his hat into the ring.

In an editorial for CNN, the president wrote that he too envisions human spaceflight to Mars -- and that, unlike some early plans for establishing a foothold on the fourth planet from our star, he believes humans can make two-way trips before eventually establishing a colony there.

"We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America's story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time," Obama wrote.

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The president said he envisions "continued cooperation between government and private innovators," and points to plans for private companies to send astronauts to the International Space Station as proof of that cooperation.

In the piece, Obama casts himself as a dreamer who has long been fascinated by the secrets space holds.

"One of my earliest memories is sitting on my grandfather's shoulders, waving a flag as our astronauts returned to Hawaii," Obama wrote. "This was years before we'd set foot on the moon. Decades before we'd land a rover on Mars. A generation before photos from the International Space Station would show up in our social media feeds."

The eventual space race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R., the first space age, led to "immeasurably important technological and medical advances," Obama noted, "but it also inspired a new generation of scientists and engineers with the right stuff to keep America on the cutting edge."

He cited President Dwight Eisenhower as an influence, noting that the Republican president and former military general knew the route to space would have to be laid brick by brick with education in science and math, spawning a new generation of bright American minds.

Obama touted his own plan to increase the number of science, math and technology teachers in the U.S., and said it's borne fruit as more than 100,000 new engineers graduate from American schools annually.

Despite all his lofty talk about sitting on his grandfather's shoulders looking up at the sky, and encouraging space exploration as president, Obama has been frequently criticized by space enthusiasts for not investing in -- and sometimes cutting -- NASA's funding.

For example, the president's 2017 budget request shaved NASA's budget by $300 million compared to the previous year, according to a report by Universe Today. Those cuts directly impacted NASA's deep space exploration programs, including efforts to send manned missions to Mars.

Obama was roundly criticized in 2010 when he canceled the Constellation human spaceflight program, which planned for the return of manned missions to the Moon, the completion of the International Space Station's modules, and eventually manned spaceflight to Mars.

The late Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to walk on the moon, was highly critical of Obama after the president's 2010 decision to cancel the Constellation program, which he called "devastating." By canceling the program and leaving the U.S. without the means to reach low Earth orbit for the first time in nearly half a century, Obama was relegating the U.S. to "second or even third rate stature," Armstrong wrote.

In an op-ed about Obama's space exploration legacy on Space.com, Mark V. Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute said the president "seems committed to undermining the nation's own solar system exploration program," noting Obama had slashed NASA's planetary science funding by 20 percent the previous year.

And in a 2015 story reacting to Obama's State of the Union speech -- in which he bragged of "a re-energized space program" -- Gizmodo's Mika McKinnon noted that the Space Launch System was "on starvation funding, just barely enough to keep it going" and criticized the president for making promises about space exploration without providing the funding.

Sources: CNN, Space.com, The Guardian, Gizmodo, Universe Today / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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