In an op-ed published in Florida Today on Wednesday, Jeff Kottkamp, a former lieutenant governor of Florida, and Rich Ramos, a Florida businessman, proposed a new justification for sending humans to Mars. A Mars program would serve, in their view, as a means to foster national unity of the sort that is rarely achieved outside times of war. Some recent polling data suggests that they may be on to something.
One does not have to watch too much cable news to understand that the United States is a very disunited country. Americans are divided as never before along racial, gender, and class lines in this the seventh year of the Obama administration. As the Washington Times once noted, this division is by deliberate design by the current president, the better to maintain his grasp on power in the waning years of his presidency.
Kottkamp and Ramos think they have a solution.
“Now is the time for all Americans to again unify under the common cause of space exploration. Now is the time to unify as a people behind a common goal: to put an astronaut on Mars by 2025. It is a common goal for all Americans, and it would be about more than simply the national pride of landing on Mars. Such a bold goal would drive the advancement of technology, require advances in our education system, and would help transform our economy by replacing outdated and unneeded jobs with high-wage, high-tech 21st century jobs.
“With this challenge we will find our next generation of great men and women who will fill the history books of tomorrow. Their achievements will be monumental and improve the quality of life for all Americans. From the Wright Brothers to Einstein to Steve Jobs — great minds from each generation meet the challenges of their time. If we accept the challenge to go to Mars, today’s generation will most certainly surprise and amaze us with advances in technology we can’t even imagine today.”
The authors of the op-ed are apparently advocating a faster Mars program than the current one, scheduled to send people to the Red Planet by 2039 or thereabout. Such an effort would require major increases in NASA’s budget and a presidential and congressional commitment unprecedented since the 1960s.
Some evidence exists that Americans might respond favorably to such a program. According to a poll conducted on behalf of Explore Mars and Boeing, roughly 75 percent of Americans favor doubling NASA’s budget if that is what it would take to get to Mars in a timely fashion. That number increases to 84 percent if a Mars probe like Curiosity finds evidence of life on the Red Planet.
It is doubtful that a neck or nothing lunge at Mars will get 100 percent support, not to mention enthusiasm, from Americans. The left will sniff, as it always does, that the money should be spent on social programs. Libertarians will wonder if any big government program of that scale should be undertaken. Others will wonder if a Mars program would suffer the same fate as Apollo, which is to see a sharp decline once the feat is accomplished and interest wanes. Still others will prefer another initial destination, say the moon. And some people will always claim that whatever method being used to get to Mars is too expensive, not sustainable, and technologically dubious. Social media will amplify these debates far beyond what they may merit.
Still, the idea of a big space project to pull Americans out of the doldrums and rancor of the Obama years has merit, especially when measured against all of the other political, scientific, and commercial benefits such an undertaking may have. That is something for the next president to think about.