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BOSTON--In the days after his Aug. 25 passing, praises for Neil Armstrong flooded newspapers, blogs, social media sites, TV screens, and radio stations. Both President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney extolled the life of the first man to step on the moon.
But would either Obama or Romney enable future Americans to follow in Neil Armstrong's footsteps?
That question is particularly relevant today, the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy's "moon speech" at Houston's Rice University. There, he famously proclaimed, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard ." Perhaps the most remarkable thing is that we did land astronauts on the moon by the end of the decade in which JFK spoke.
Now, we live in very different times. The motivating force behind the Apollo program--beating the Soviet Union to the moon--no longer exists, and a presidential speech will not suffice to provide the political support required to go back to the moon or to send astronauts to Mars.
After all, we have had several presidents since JFK propose returning to the moon or venturing to Mars, including George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Obama. These programs lacked (or lack) the political will and/or budgetary support--never mind the mission focus--to succeed.
However, budgetary reality and growing commercial competition have created what could be a unique opportunity to revitalize America's human space-flight program. Several well-regarded mission concepts are under discussion in the space community that could get us back to the moon or to other destinations--an asteroid, the moons of Mars, or even the Martian surface--within the next two decades. Many of these plans aim to maximize efficiency and keep down costs.
Our government may be unable to agree on tax policy, Medicare, Social Security reform, social issues, foreign policy, or much of anything, but at a modest portion of the budget (less than half of
Such a mission would represent more than a scientific, technological, economic, and educational boost; it also could provide something equally important.