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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 4/25/16

'Lack of political will' strains space program Mission to Mars? When?

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Article originally published in the Orlando Sentinel.

By Robert Weiner, Lile Fu and Ben Lasky
Outcrops on Mars - MSL Curiosity Sol 969
Outcrops on Mars - MSL Curiosity Sol 969
(Image by Kevin M. Gill)
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On Friday, China announced that it plans to land a rover on Mars by 2020. The Russian Federal Space Agency is working with the European Space Agency . Every major power in the world has some form of interest in Mars. Like 1961, when Russia first rocketed Yuri Gagarin into orbit and the U.S. was afraid that Russians would beat us with the first actual man on the Moon, the race is on.

The U.S. should again set its priorities to be able to claim that it first stepped foot on the Red Planet. Unfortunately, we are not.

When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969, Americans dreamed of the possibilities in spaceflight. We were certain that in the not-too-distant future, an astronaut would land on Mars. However, 47 years after the moon landing, the U.S. is no closer to that goal.

The U.S. still has its eyes on Mars -- at least that's what the government leads us to believe. Astronaut Scott Kelly was back on Earth after spending 340 days in space on March 2. His year in space was part of a NASA study involving both him and his twin brother, Mark, a former astronaut, on space travel and the human body in space versus on Earth. This was in preparation for a theoretical Mars mission.

The problem is, there has been no mission to Mars. For nearly 50 years and counting since we landed on the moon, there has been a manned mission-to-orbit circling 200 to 300 miles above us, and an unmanned mission to other planets.

Mark Kelly and Col. Terry Virts, a former Air Force pilot, attended a "breakfast from space" presentation in person on the mission to Mars at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 15. Mark's brother, Scott, also spoke at the event, live from the International Space Station.

There is a "lack of political will" to generate public support for funding, according to Kelly and Virts. We have spent countless trillions of dollars on failed wars with wasted results, but we have spent nowhere near what we need to accomplish manned science in other parts of our universe. This could have amazing givebacks in resources and knowledge.

"Space is just a blip on the political radar," writes Keith Cowing, a former NASA employee and the editor of NASA Watch. NASA's budget is less than half a percent of total federal spending, which hit $3.7 trillion in the 2015 budget year. NASA's budget has stayed at less than 1 percent of the federal budget for more than 30 years after reaching its peak of almost 4 percent under President Nixon, when we stepped on the moon.

NASA advocates have tried. However, the Constellation human-spaceflight program was first removed from the 2010 NASA budget request, and has disappeared since, even though President Obama predicted a U.S.-crewed orbital Mars mission by the mid-2030s, preceded by an asteroid mission by 2025. Liberals typically block space programs to better spend money "at home."

According to Virts, technology has a lot of promise in a journey to Mars. He also said that based on the progress between 1961 and 1969, from Earth orbit to manned lunar landing on Mars is not far-fetched. But it can be done only with a green light from Congress and the White House.

"We must think of [space activities] as part of a continuing process and not a series of separate leaps," Nixon stated on March 7, 1970.

Subsequent presidents put Mars exploration into their presidential calendars -- and then ignored the funding. Ford saluted the landings of the twin Viking robotic explorers on Mars for life exploration in 1976. Carter, a US Navy nuclear submarine engineer earlier in his life, in 1978 sought more details, such as what mountains and valleys look like on Mars instead of rolling surfaces. George H.W. Bush announced the well-known "Space Exploration Initiative" in 1989, to go back to the moon and launch a manned mission to Mars (did not happen). Clinton emphasized searching for further evidence of life on Mars after the announcement of potential primitive bacterial life in Martian origin by NASA scientists in 1996. George W. Bush announced new plans of a human return to the moon by the year 2020, in preparation for human exploration of Mars. We would not recommend lining up at the launching pad.

The central question inspiring Earthbound humans remains: Is there, or was there ever, life elsewhere in the solar system? Earth is the only planet that possesses life that we know. But that does not pass our common-sense test, which is why millions either did see UFOs or believe they did. Whether life is possible on another planet attracts scientists and everyone else.

And then there is commercialization. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich ran for president and called for space colonization. Maybe that's not the best reason to go there.

Neil Armstrong famously declared that his landing was, "One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind." That joy of pure science and exploration is a great hope. However, since those first steps, the U.S. has barely crawled toward anywhere else.

Robert Weiner is a former spokesman for the Clinton White House and House Government Operations Committee. Lile Fu of Beijing, China, is policy analyst at Solutions for Change. Ben Lasky is senior policy analyst at Solutions for Change.

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