What Will It Really Take to Get to Mars?

President Obama just published an essay on CNN.com about a potentially bold initiative to send people to Mars by the 2030s. "Getting to Mars will require continued cooperation between government and private innovators," he said. Which is exactly as it should be.

But many Americans seem to be mistaken about that cooperation. Too many of us these days think that the heavy lifting will be by private industry. That thinking is exactly backwards. Most of the money being spent on space today is through government contracts. And that is bound to continue at least for awhile as we settle the outer reaches of the Gravity Well.

To regain our technological leadership, to continue to explore and discover and invent, to lead the world in saving humanity, and in the meantime to revitalize the economy—we need a government effort as well as a private one. We need both working together.

In other words, we need a bold national space program and more stable and rational funding of NASA. Private industry is building most of the equipment that goes into space, but the leading-edge research and risk-taking have to be spread over our entire society. No single company in its right mind would subject a relatively few stockholders to this risk. 

The problem is, NASA can’t sustain itself on its current budget. It currently gets $18 billion a year from Congress, an amount that has been shrinking in real dollars for the past two and a half decades. While $18 billion constitutes an impressive amount of money, our spending on Hollywood shows where our priorities currently lie. The 2015 space movie, The Martian — the one in which Matt Damon plays an astronaut-botanist—is a good example. On the days of its opening weekend, it took in more box office receipts than we spent on NASA. And that doesn’t count what we spent on popcorn.  Our nation has become better at playing pretend than actually boldly going. 

To boost that budget to the $30 billion necessary for colonizing Mars and meeting NASA’s other, ambitious goals, would constitute an increase of about one third of one percent of the federal budget. To get that money will require a whole different conversation among our political candidates and thought leaders, as well as you and me. We will need to ask ourselves what happens if we don’t lead?  Who will we follow?  What will drive our 21st economy? We urgently need to recognize what space does for us as a nation—technologically, educationally, globally, economically. Spiritually. Space, ultimately, is about faith—faith that our curiosity and restlessness, our ability to take some risks, will lead to treasures we cannot imagine. 

President Obama did a good thing when he renewed his call for Mars. Now the rest of us--including Congress and the next President--have to do the hard work of ensuring we get there.