Years ago when I was traveling in Spain, I went on a road trip to a small Costa Blanca beach town with a carful of dyspeptic British ex-pats. One night we were driving on a quiet road in the hills above the town when, apropos of nothing in particular, one of my backseat companions pointed out her window at the full moon overhead and said, “I know it’s a horrible cliché and all, but does anyone else ever look at the moon and think, my god, people have stood on that?”
And for a moment the car went silent as we all stopped complaining about our hotel or bitching about the meal we’d just had or whatever it was we’d been doing, and thought to ourselves “wow, she’s right, that’s really something.
You couldn’t do this with Mars. It’s too hard to see. Had someone tried there would have just been some squinting, a bit of confused pointing perhaps, and maybe some arguing about which direction was south. Then we all would have shrugged and gone back to fiddling with the car radio.
Nonetheless, with the 40th anniversary of the moon landing now upon us, it’s only natural to wonder when we might get around to paying the Red Planet a visit. The last time the notion of a mission to Mars made widespread headlines was in 2004 when President Bush, perhaps sensing that his gambit to remake the Middle East wasn’t shaking out so well, announced “a new plan to explore space and extend a human presence across our solar system.” This plan became “Constellation” — NASA’s current human spaceflight program, which calls for the development of new spacecraft and booster vehicles to replace the space shuttle (set to be decommissioned in 2010) and for manned trips to the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Eventually,” however, can be a tricky deadline to pin down. For instance, in 1989 (on the 20th anniversary of the moon landing), Bush pere made his own Mars headlines, announcing a goal of landing astronauts on the planet by 2019. Shortly thereafter, though, NASA came to him with an estimated $400 billion price tag for the project, and, well, suddenly everyone was a little less excited about the idea than they’d been before.
The current timeline puts a Mars landing at about 25 years out, an estimate that probably sits on the reliability spectrum somewhere between Amy Winehouse and a weekend F train. Interestingly (at least for a naif like myself for whom the idea of a trip to Mars still seems more Buck Rogers than potential reality), the issue isn’t technology, or even money really. It’s essentially just a matter of priorities and politics.