As the future direction of NASA’s Space program hangs in the balance, a piece in the Washington Times advocates a stepped up Journey to Mars program. The idea is to use part of the money saved by President Donald Trump’s across the board cut in domestic discretionary spending to add enough money to NASA to get people to Mars and back in a reasonable amount of time. The reasons for an equivalent to an Apollo program to Mars deserves some examination.

“For a start, Mars has the peaceful potential to unite Americans of every creed.”

History and an analysis of current Politics make one wonder if this is true.

Cranky liberals will decry spending on a space adventure while (they will claim) social needs go begging. Cranky libertarians will snark about a repeat of Apollo (yes, they think the first one was a mistake) when what NASA should really do is be a cash cow for commercial ventures. On the other hand, if NASA were to partner with SpaceX and other commercial companies, as some had suggested, that anti-Apollo program crowd might not oppose going to Mars as much. Lunar return advocates will point out that the moon has more immediate and practical benefits. Then again, putting a return to the moon in the path on the Journey to Mars will mollify that faction.

The point is, Trump cannot just make a Kennedy-style speech “we choose to go to Mars!” and expect the nation to fall into line.

He will have to nurture the program, fending off opposition, making sure it gets adequate funding, throughout his presidency. Polls suggest that even Apollo was not all that popular until decades after the fact. Trump would have to exert leadership to keep such a program on track.

“Second, visiting Mars would help make math and science cool(er).”

The idea that going to Mars will help stimulate enthusiasm for STEM education is largely true and is supported by what happened during the Apollo race to the moon. Indeed, some of the commercial space entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos were inspired by Apollo (and Star Trek.) So a serious Mars effort would likely encourage a lot of kids to get into math and science, based on history.

“Third, putting men and women on Mars would win new scientific and technological advancements.”

This supposition, also based on history, is correct. The Apollo program more than paid for itself through technological spin-offs and is still gaining scientific knowledge decades later as new tools are invented to analyze geological samples brought home from the moon. The author of the piece mentions the em drive as a possible spin-off to a Mars effort. While the technology looks promising, based on a number of laboratory tests, it by no means has been proven to be a viable way of propelling spacecraft – yet.

What about going back to the moon first?

Going back to the moon first would have all of the benefits that the author of the piece claims that Apollo to Mars has, plus commercial opportunities from lunar mining and supporting going to Mars after through access to lunar water.

In short, space does have the potential to provide the United States a host of benefits. But it is not a magic elixir and will need constant leadership and nurturing to make it work.