Mars: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
These days it seems everyone is talking about Mars: from Matt Damon’s harrowing adventure in The Martian, to Elon Musk’s constant talk of wanting to “die on mars, just not on impact,” our culture is obsessed with the Red Planet. At times it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. So let’s take a moment to step back and look at the current status of the strenuous, beautiful, and complicated relationship between us and our next door neighbor.
Last time we took a look at everything ugly surrounding our journey to Mars, from radiation to orbital mechanics. I know I said it would get better - and it will, I promise. But now we have to go through the bad stuff. All that ugly business, it’s tough. Science will have to solve most of those problems. What we’re going to talk about now is mostly political. The good news is that all of this is completely solvable in the very near term.
To start off, let’s look at a few statistics. In 1966, in the midst of the space race, NASA’s operating budget represented nearly 4.5% of the entire federal budget. This might not sound like much, so let’s put that in context: in 2016, the whole defense budget of the United States - from operating bases around the world to the salaries of every soldier - represented 15% of the federal budget. See what I’m getting at here? NASA was incredibly well funded back in the 60s, and for good reason. The entire space race was politically and militarily motivated - beat the Soviets, win the technological war, and make better intercontinental ballistic missiles. Despite the largely non-peaceful motivations, this was a period of amazing technological advancement. It was only in 1961 that a human first orbited the Earth; and yet, by 1969, we had landed and returned a man safely from the moon, a mere eight years later. This ridiculous pace of advancement was only possible because of a shared commitment by NASA, the government, and the American public.
Since 1975, however, NASA’s budget has not surpassed 1% of the federal budget except for three years where it climbed to 1.05%. When you consider all they have accomplished - the International Space Station, the Space Shuttle, the Voyager probes, multiple Mars rovers, the Hubble telescope, and so much more - it truly is amazing. But if we want to break out of the confines of our own planet, to set foot on another world, it is going to take much more than 0.5%, the current share NASA holds of the federal budget. Despite the fact that this small percentage accounts for over $18 billion in funding, it is simply not enough. We must recapture the spirit of the 1960s, when getting to the Moon was not simply a pipe dream but a necessity; it became our destiny and we refused to believe in any other future. Even a doubling of the NASA budget back to a 1% share of the federal budget would dramatically increase the rate of progress on our journey to Mars.
There also remains the problem of long-term planning under the political structure of the United States. With changing administrations every four to eight years, NASA has increasingly turned to short term, cheaper projects they can feel confident will be seen to conclusion. Going to Mars is a completely different beast - it will require funding guarantees over multiple decades, during which NASA can confidently and diligently work to solve the thousands of problems still facing a manned mission. It is impossible to do this when they must constantly worry about how changes in Washington will affect their ability to accomplish long-term goals. Politicians are often more concerned about reelection than progress, and the Washington staple of pork barreling (bringing government funded projects to an area as a means of winning votes) means that oftentimes the projects that are funded aren’t necessarily the right ones. In addition, the President himself has the power to choose the Administrator of NASA; essentially, the head of NASA. This means that leadership cannot remain long enough to see through the projects they have started, and leaves many aspects of NASA in a constant disjointed state.
Although there is no clear solution to this problem, one thing is evident: until going to Mars becomes a priority in the eyes of many Americans, it is destined to always remain “just twenty years away.”