In the run-up to the historic touchdown of the Mars rover Curiosity, Jim Green, head of the planetary science division at NASA, called it the "most significant event in the history of planetary exploration." NASA Mars Exploration Program Director Doug McCuistion said a successful landing "could arguably be the most important event ... in the history of planetary exploration."
It's clear Curiosity has big shoes to fill over the next 23 months in its quest for evidence of microbial life on the Red Planet. But what does the landing's success mean for the future of Mars exploration?
Curiosity's touchdown follows many recent successes in Red Planet exploration. American missions of the past decade and a half include the Mars Pathfinder mission of 1997, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers of 2004 and the Phoenix lander of 2008. The United States has had more successful Mars missions than any other nation.
We must not allow the triumph of the Curiosity landing to fade into distant memory. The images of the rover alighting on Mars should be a catalyst to reinvigorate our space goals, among these the goal of landing humans on Mars by 2030. There is a plethora of mission concepts that could be launched over the next decade. Many of these concepts are extremely innovative and would be worthy follow-up missions to Curiosity. The icing on the cake would be humans landing on Mars within the next 17 years. Why? Put simply, the only way to know for certain whether there has ever been life on Mars is to send a human being to find out.
Recently, Mars exploration was dealt a serious blow when the 2013 federal budget proposal eliminated funding for future NASA Mars missions. The entire NASA budget makes up less than half of 1 percent of the federal budget, and the Mars budget is a small share even of that. Rather than finding new ways to render NASA toothless, we should use this already-modest budget to explore vital technology.
Aerospace exploration provides us with an opportunity to reclaim our once-undisputed technological advantage -- all for a relatively small financial investment. With this we can inspire students to pursue science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields, the very areas in which we have fallen behind. Recently the United States ranked 25th in math and 17th in science in a survey of 31 countries conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Perhaps even more concerning is the fact that, according to the same study, just 24 percent of all U.S. STEM jobs are held by women.
While discouraging on their face, these facts could provide us with the impetus to reinspire and reinvigorate aerospace education. A renewed enthusiasm for space exploration would remind the United States and the rest of the world that despite recent trends, we are still capable of a technological renaissance.
Chris Carberry is executive director of the nonprofit group Explore Mars.