If the United States commits to the goal of reaching Mars, it will almost certainly do so in reaction to the progress of other nations -- as was the case with NASA, the Apollo program, and the project that became the International Space Station.
Last December, China released an official strategy paper describing an ambitious five-year plan to advance its space capabilities.When it comes to its space programs, China is not in the habit of proffering grand but empty visions. Far from it: the country has an excellent track record of matching promises with achievements.
The partisanship surrounding space exploration and the retrenching of U.S. space policy are part of a more general trend: the decline of science in the United States. As its interest in science wanes, the country loses ground to the rest of the industrialized world in every measure of technological proficiency.
Clearly defined, goal-oriented support for specific outcomes in specific fields may yield evolutionary advances, but cross-pollination involving a diversity of sciences much more readily encourages revolutionary discoveries. And nothing spurs cross-pollination like space exploration, which draws from the ranks of astrophysicists, biologists, chemists, engineers, planetary geologists, and subspecialists in those fields. Without healthy federal support for the space program, ambitions calcify, and the economy that once thrived on a culture of innovation retreats from the world stage.
Many will ask, “Why are we spending billion of dollars up there in space when we have pressing problems down here on Earth?” That question should be replaced by a more illuminating one: “As a fraction of one of my tax dollars today, what is the total cost of all U.S. spaceborne telescopes and planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the recently terminated space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?” The answer is one-half of one penny. During the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending (in 1965–66) amounted to a bit more than four cents on the tax dollar. If the United States restored funding for NASA to even a quarter of that level -- a penny on the tax dollar -- the country could reclaim its preeminence in a field that shaped its twentieth-century ascendancy.
4 days ago