NASA Mars Landing: US Can Still Lead in Space Exploration

Sunday night’s successful landing of the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars brings that planet and its exploration back into stark focus. So far, only robotic explorers have set down on the dusty surface of the Red Planet, but what of human exploration of Mars? How should we go about doing it? Comments made last week by NASA’s administrator, Charles Bolden, reveal a potential path.

In statements made to USA Today, Bolden said "I have no desire to do a Mars landing on our own. The U.S. cannot always be the leader, but we can be the inspirational leader through international cooperation."

Some will criticize Bolden for saying that the U.S. should seek out international partners for a manned mission to Mars. But, as NASA administrator and a former astronaut and military officer, Administrator Bolden is in a unique position to judge the effort required to mount a mission of the magnitude of a manned Mars launch. It seems that he has judged that the risks involved in mounting a manned mission to Mars make it sensible for America to cooperate with like-minded nations to spread that risk around.

The physical hazards of long term space flight are only minimally understood for one simple reason – it’s never been done before. The space faring nations of Earth have lots of experience in low Earth orbit. We know about bone density loss in microgravity, radiation hazards, and human psychology on long endurance missions in the relatively safe confines of low Earth orbit, but we have little idea how the human body and mind will hold up in the deep space between planets. Experiments have been run but until humans actually venture out all we can do is hope that the experimental data is valid.

There is also the physical risk involved in the event of mission failure. There is no rescue option if the mission goes awry. Interplanetary tow trucks that can go out and retrieve damaged space craft are not on the drawing boards. Until the capability to travel between planets becomes routine such trips to other worlds will pose mortal risk to the crews that undertake them.

Along with the physical risks run large financial risks. A mission of this magnitude will be extremely costly. Though no one can accurately predict what the state of the world economy will be in the 2030 target time frame, given the current cash strapped state of the U.S. Treasury why shouldn’t the U.S. spread this financial risk among partners?

There is precedent for such cooperation in space ventures. The International Space Station is the prime example of multinational space collaboration. But there have been countless other, smaller programs that have benefited from the expertise and financial backing of multiple nation states. The entire European space program, under the auspices of the European Space Agency, works as an intergovernmental space faring body. And as much as Americans hate to admit it, since the space shuttles were retired the U.S. has been collaborating heavily with Russia in space.

Technologically the U.S. could make a manned mission to Mars happen but there is no good reason why we should. We are no longer in an era where brinkmanship trumps, as it did in the Apollo era. The U.S. and NASA should share the risks and the rewards of launching a manned mission to Mars. To do otherwise would be irresponsible.