We Should Be Packing Our Bags for Mars Right Now

The U.S. needs to send people to the Red Planet.

Scientists, science geeks and the media were jumping for joy when the $2.5 billion Mars rover Curiosity successfully landed earlier this week after an eight-month journey.

Wake me up when we send humans.

It’s not as though these rover missions aren’t scientifically significant. The car-sized science lab Curiosity will spend the next two years exploring rocks and soil in search of the chemical ingredients of life.

On its first day on the Red Planet, Curiosity sent back to earth spectacular photos of the earth-like crater landing site and the mountain it plans to climb. The photos from the rovers are spectacular, but we’ve been taking photos of the Martian landscape since the 1970s Viking landers. Unless these probes find Marvin the Martian, Transformers, John Carter, Robinson Crusoe, Santa Claus, Ray Walston, chocolate candy bars with caramel, nougat and almonds, or Jared Leto, the only way to truly capture the public’s attention and bolster support for NASA is to send humans.

It will take years, not 30 seconds, to get to Mars. President Obama has set forth his vision for sending humans to Mars in the 2030s, but these planned manned missions are flying under the radar.

According to the Los Angeles Times last week, NASA’s budget faces uncertainty in the upcoming years. Although the Obama Administration proposed to keep NASA’s overall 2013 budget at about the same level as it was in 2012, due to the recession, budget concerns, and pressure by spending cutters, the Obama Administration proposed slashing the funding for Mars exploration by more than $200 million, or almost 40 percent.

More than 50 years ago, President Kennedy inspired a generation by setting the goal of sending men to the moon and returning them safely. Despite legitimate budgetary concerns, Obama and Congressional leaders need to focus on Mars as an important national goal. Space exploration is difficult and expensive, but it’s something that we can’t give up on. This might sound Newt Gingrichy, but we should focus on colonizing Mars. Next year, whether it’s Obama or Romney, the President should make a unifying, inspiring Kennedyesque speech that inspires us to focus on getting to Mars. Space exploration and technology is important for bolstering national pride and morale and keeping the United States a world leader.

China and India will soon be launching their own unmanned Mars missions. A Dutch entrepreneur has formed Mars One, a private company that plans to hold a worldwide lottery to select people for a one-way mission to colonize Mars in 2023. The company Space X hopes to get humans to Mars in 12 to 15 years.

Getting to Mars won’t be easy or without risk. According to Wired Science, “Counting all Soviet/Russian, U.S., European, and Japanese attempts, more than half of Mars missions have failed, either because of some botched rocket launch on Earth or a systems malfunction en route to or at the planet. The success rate for actually landing on the Martian surface is even worse, roughly 30 percent.” Two of the more famous failures took place in 1998 when the Mars Climate Orbiter burned up due to a navigation error and the Mars Polar Lander ceased communicating with Earth, most likely due to a crash on the planet’s surface. Naysayers allege that NASA and its space exploration programs are a waste of taxpayer money that would be better spent on problems here on Earth.

Despite the risks, there are many reasons we shouldn’t wait to start seriously planning manned Mars missions, ranging from improved technology to a boost in the economy through engineering, manufacturing, and scientific-related, high-tech jobs. For instance, according to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory has transferred more than 8,000 new technologies to commercial application, employs 5,400 people, and pumps $232 million into the local San Gabriel Valley economy. According to CNNMoney, NASA spokesman Guy Webster said that the Curiosity rover has supported and generated more than 7,000 jobs at NASA as well as many private companies, including Lockheed Martin.

However, the biggest reasons to send humans to Mars are inspiration, a thirst for knowledge, curiosity, and a foothold on our future. Exploration and curiosity is part of our collective DNA and goes back several millennia. Mars represents our backup plan for the survival of our species in case natural or man-made disasters threaten the Earth. This is the time for giant leaps for mankind, not small steps.

Larry Atkins, a lawyer and a journalist, teaches journalism at Temple University and Arcadia University. He has written for the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Huffington Post, NPR, Philadelphia Inquirer, and others.