Article originally published in the Orlando Sentinel
By Robert Weiner and John Black
State-run Beijing News recently announced that China will begin work on a moon base within the next decade, in preparation for manned missions to Mars.
President Trump and Vice President Pence have demonstrated interest in a U.S. Mars expedition. In fact, according to former White House communications aide Cliff Sims wrote in his book "Team of Vipers" that Trump offered NASA an unlimited budget to try and reach Mars by the end of his first term.
More recently, on March 26, Pence offered a man-back-to-moon quick first step, saying, "The United States of America will return to the moon within the next five years."
With the Chinese announcement, the White House should feel pressed to take action.
For years, the United States has talked about sending people to Mars. In 2016, at the National Press Club "Breakfast from Space" presentation, Astronaut Mark Kelly asserted that the US has a "lack of political will" to fully commit to Mars.
According to Sims' book, Trump asked acting NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot, Jr. during a briefing: "What if I gave you all the money you could ever need to do it? What if we sent NASA's budget through the roof, but focused entirely on that instead of whatever else you're doing now?"
While an immediate expedition to Mars isn't feasible, the United States needs a plan of action. During an interview at the National Press Club on April 15, Apollo 11 pilot Michael Collins was baffled by the idea of a Mars mission by 2024. He is an advocate of a Mars expedition, but asserted that "preparations could take until 2040."
After the logistics of the mission were explained to him, Trump changed his target, instead aiming for the Moon by 2024. Trump's will to begin the journey to Mars vanished when he found out it could not happen during his presidency.
But there is no more time for complacency. Going to the moon just to go back to the moon is as redundant as the constant 200 miles up-and-down space shuttles that followed the moon landing 50 years ago.
If the nation is serious about the science, the White House this and ones coming next need to maintain political will in the face of pressure to use funds elsewhere.
"We're in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s," Vice President Pence argued.
He's right. We are in a space race. But the race isn't a quick trip to the moon the race is to get to Mars, and China is officially beating us.
While NASA currently has rovers on Mars, experts like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson have argued over the years that the U.S. needs to do more.
"I would argue that today if we think of China as competition, economic competition, which they surely are, then to pull back on our space ambitions is a direct sort of lever arm on our capacity to compete economically," deGrasse Tyson said in a 2012 interview with CNN.
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