A mission worthy of NASA: A human landing on Mars

NASA astronaut Clay Anderson waves outside the International Space Station in 2007.
NASA astronaut Clay Anderson waves outside the International Space Station in 2007. AP

NASA’s recent discovery of flowing water on Mars has rekindled a vital debate: What is the proper role of NASA in an era when private companies are also actively competing to open up more access to space?

The success of commercial space ventures is no small feat, considering the risk and technical hurdles. And it’s been a long time coming.

Now companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are building their own rockets, launching satellites and ferrying supplies to the International Space Station.

Excited by their progress, some have suggested we outsource even bolder space exploration to these companies. Why not entrust the audacious human Mars-landing mission to private companies?

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has already boasted of plans to build a new rocket that could send citizen colonists to Mars years ahead of NASA’s schedule and for only $500,000 per ticket. That’s dirt cheap.

The idea is attractive, considering today’s budget crunch, even if commercial plans for a Mars mission are hypothetical at best.

But as much as I support the private space industry, experience and common sense tell me that a commercial Mars human landing won’t ever get off the ground — not unless NASA goes there first.

Businesses are slaves to short-term balance sheets, and private space industry investors and shareholders are notoriously risk-averse. Even wealthy entrepreneurs won’t throw their money away.

They’ll back straightforward missions — like delivering cargo to the space station 250 miles above Earth using mature and well-tested technologies — if they can turn a profit within a reasonable time with acceptable risk.

But true exploration is, by its nature, risky.

Only a nation can marshal the long-term funding and pioneering vision needed to “boldly go where no one has gone before.”

In fact, nearly every great exploration in history has been government-funded or guaranteed, from Magellan’s trip around the globe to NASA’s own improbable list of “firsts.”

When President Kennedy declared in 1961 that the U.S. would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, no one had the technologies we would need.

Of course, before it succeeded, NASA failed publicly many times.

If we had entrusted the project to private industry, shareholders or investors would have pulled the plug long before the Apollo program.

NASA engineers are already developing new technologies for a manned Mars mission like new propulsion systems that produce high velocities at low power, efficient wastewater recycling for long missions and deep-space radiation shields needed for humans to survive the 2 1/2-year round-trip mission to Mars.

NASA is also far down the road building the rocket needed to power this mission — the most powerful launch vehicle in history, known as the Space Launch System.

Mars is our era’s moon shot — the difficult challenge we choose to accept not because it is easy, as President Kennedy said, but because it is hard, because it will drive us to invent new technologies, answer the toughest questions and inspire a new generation of American engineers and scientists to carry the torch for decades to come.

We should continue to support commercial space companies as they make spaceflight cheaper and more accessible.

But we should continue to push the envelope, to expand the frontier as a top national priority. That’s a job only NASA can lead.

Charles D. Walker is an engineer and a former space shuttle astronaut.