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Another Giant Leap for Mankind?

President Obama Calls for a Mission to Mars by the 2030s

In a recent op-ed for CNN, U.S. President Barack Obama expressed a keen interest in sending humans to Mars by the 2030s. The President outlined his plan to deliver American astronauts to the red planet by promoting greater cooperation between government agencies and private companies – a partnership that will not only allow humans to reach Mars in the near future, but remain there for an extended period. The hope is that, within two years, these private companies will for assist for the first time in sending NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), a habitable satellite currently orbiting the Earth. The next step, according to President Obama, is to work closely with commercial partners to form new habitats in deep space beyond Earth’s orbit. These new habitats will provide the necessary sustainability and transport to NASA astronauts and flight engineers in order to undertake groundbreaking missions to places like Mars.


In a joint statement issued by the White House and NASA, current NASA Administrator, Charles Bolden, expounded on President Obama’s plans for space exploration. Bolden discussed two initiatives that will “build on the president’s vision and utilize public-private partnerships to enable humans to live and work in space in a sustainable way.” First, Bolden detailed NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP, which is an initiative that will enable private aeronautics companies like SpaceX and Boeing to design space habitats. Second, Bolden discussed a program aimed at fostering innovation on the ISS, whereupon NASA has reached out to the private sector and requested collaboration to develop new ways of utilizing the space station. Elon Musk, the Chief Executive Officer of SpaceX, affirmed this notion of collaboration when he stated that a journey to Mars would necessitate “a huge public-private partnership.” By affording the private sector a seat at the table for an endeavour that has traditionally fallen within the realm of the federal government, it would seem as though the stage is set for revolutionary advancements to take place within the American space program.


The sentiments expressed by President Obama in his op-ed echo comments that he made in 2010 during a visit to the Kennedy Space Center, one of NASA’s primary launch headquarters. After touring the facilities, the President delivered remarks calling for a revitalization of the space program and referenced John F. Kennedy’s historic 1961 speech, which was viewed by many to be the first step in the nationwide effort towards landing a man on the moon. Despite President Obama’s optimism about a trek to Mars occurring within the next two decades, experts on the American space program say that they are uncertain as to whether the next leader of the United States is prepared to follow through on this lofty goal.


For the most part, both Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, have remained silent on the campaign trail about their plans for NASA and broader space exploration policy. According to Casey Dreier, Director of Space Policy at the American Planetary Society, the candidates’ silence on this topic may be for the best. Commenting on the 2016 presidential race and the future of the space program in the United States, Dreier stated: “In a sense, it’s disappointing that space science and space exploration isn’t a bigger issue [in this election], but at the same time, it’s kind of a good thing that one side isn’t talking about it and riling it up, creating division by embracing or rejecting it.”


While President Obama’s time in office is winding down, many view the developments in the American space program over the last eight years to be a key part of his legacy. Even the President himself seems to place tremendous value on the space program’s achievements during his tenure and has high expectations for the future. “Someday I hope to hoist my own grandchildren onto my shoulders,” the President wrote in his op-ed for CNN. “We’ll still look to the stars in wonder, as humans have since the beginning of time. But instead of eagerly awaiting the return of our intrepid explorers, we’ll know that because of the choices we make now, they’ve gone to space not just to visit, but to stay – and in doing so, to make our lives better here on Earth.” President Obama is set to attend the White House Frontiers Conference at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the coming weeks. During the conference, he is expected to discuss plans for scientific and technological innovation to continue to take place in the United States and elucidate further on his plans to make a trip to Mars a reality by the 2030s.