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3/4/2017 by mdc
Rebecca Boyle blogs that since the 1960s, Mars exploration has either been conducted by robot surveyors or confined to opaque dreams of human visitors. The first path has been an unqualified success. Humans have sent twenty-odd spacecraft to Mars, and uncrewed ships have uncovered many of the red planet secrets.

NASA robotic missions have been following water, which suggests a habitable history, and have found plenty of evidence that Mars was once balmy and damp. Robotic orbiters and planned landers from Europe, Russia, China and India (none landed successfully, save for one Russian lander that lasted only 20 seconds on the planet surface) have been trying to understand Mars atmosphere and to look for life.

But no nation has embarked on the second path. None has designed a rocket that could get humans to Mars, let alone launched a mission with a budget and a deadline. American leaders have offered vague plans, all of which have stalled. None has been as concise or as frank as John F. Kennedy was when he set a date by which we would land on the Moon.

In 2004, President George W. Bush proposed the Constellation program, which called for Americans to return to the moon by 2020 and reach Mars later. President Barack Obama canceled it, only to plan a mission to an asteroid as a stepping stone on a nebulous Journey to Mars. NASA officials continue to discuss this journey, even though there are no firm plans or timelines.

With inconsistent planning from one administration to the next, the nation has never had any plans for Mars that approach the scale of the Apollo program that took us to the Moon, Lambright said.

The space station does show it is feasible to have a long-term program, but it has to be maintained by a sequence of presidents and a sequence of NASAs. And that is the potential dilemma.

(But an extended Mars program is too risky. We have always preferred to return to the Moon and build a base, and learn how to work in that environment first.)

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