Image: Sojourner Truth
Pat Rawlings / NASA
An artist's conception shows an astronaut examining the Mars Pathfinder mission's Sojourner rover, which operated on the Red Planet in 1997.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/3/2012 4:19:35 PM ET 2012-02-03T21:19:35
Commentary

It's the kind of question a presidential candidate might ask: "Why should we spend money on space programs and going to Mars, when we need dollars so desperately here on Earth?"

“For thousands of highly-skilled jobs, and the knowledge to survive,” says Princeton physicist Gene McCall, former chief scientist of the Air Force Space Command and a fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

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“If we spread the costs among an international consortium with many member nations," McCall told me, “we can afford a better, healthier life, protect our planet from incoming asteroids and space debris, and outsmart our destiny to become extinct.”

The late, great TV news anchor Walter Cronkite used to say, “There’s not a single McDonald's on the moon or on Mars.  Every space dollar stays in the pockets of those needing to eat on Earth."

We see the benefits of the space program all around us in lives saved, in early detection of cancers, in NASA's discovery of the dangers of cholesterol coupled with stress, in early detection of most diseases, in improved surgery techniques needed for repairing failing hearts, in making a child’s small body whole, and in filling our stomachs with safe foods.

We see spaceflight dollars when weather satellites warn of hurricanes, when radar systems tell us that tornadoes are approaching, when satellites log critical environmental changes, when an ATM hands us our cash, when we pay our bills and communicate through satellites. Most importantly, we see space dollars at work when doctors perform surgery robotically through eyes in space, when firefighters walk into flames breathing safely through equipment developed for NASA, when ... Well, there’s simply no end to the benefits gained by science.

If we are to survive, we must have the knowledge and elsewhere to go in our solar system.

Our best bet for homes beyond Earth in the foreseeable future will be the moon or Mars.       

Even with the Red Planet’s thin atmosphere and abundant water in permafrost, its weak magnetosphere, its changing seasons and days the same as Earth’s, it is possibly the second safest place for humans in our solar system. 

"Mars will be a harsh mistress," McCall said. "I’m not sure it will be friendlier to humans than the moon, but we need the choice.   We could likely establish an artificial atmosphere on Mars.  Not possible on the moon because of the low gravity, but making Mars earthlike could be an affordable major hundred year project for the nations of Earth."

Image: "Moon Shot"
Open Road Integrated Media
"Moon Shot" recounts the story of the early space effort. NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree has updated the book, written with astronauts Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton as co-authors, for the 50th anniversary of the first U.S. and Soviet spaceflights.

One very noticeable difference: Mars will never offer humans warm, sandy beaches.  Its warmest season is akin to North Dakota’s worst winter. But if Earth ever becomes uninhabitable because of disease, famine, nuclear war, a genetic virus, global warming, an asteroid like the one that killed most life on our planet 65 million years ago, or a comet like the one that smasked into Jupiter in 1994, or from any other unforeseen catastrophe ... then we could make Mars habitable.

Only recently an asteroid gave us a close shave by passing inside the moon’s orbit. "We're sitting ducks," said Michio Kaku, a physicist at City University New York. "We have no clue. We cannot defend ourselves without a space program — without rockets to deflect these planet busting items from space.”    

Many historians believe our time left on Earth is measured in generations, not in centuries or billions of years. Our past suggests that the greatest threat to our existence may well be ... us. All the great empires that held dominion over Earth were destroyed or faded away. Those that did survive by achieving luxury and great wealth met their end because of self-satisfaction, idleness, loss of ambition, and because those who know only luxury and pampering tend to lose the skills to survive.  

We humans first appeared in Africa, and up to the present time, we have been pushing outward to the frontier, using inventions ranging from stone tools to Apollo moon landers. If we are to escape history’s plans for our inevitable death, we must rekindle our desire to explore.  Only with multiple homes in our solar system can we ensure human survival.  We’ve already taken Neil Armstrong’s first small step — but if we are to have a future, we must go back to the moon and learn how to colonize near space.        

It's not just up to NASA, says the agency's deputy administrator, Lori Garver. "NASA’s commercial partners are making real progress today opening up a new job-creating segment of the economy that will allow the space agency to focus on its next big challenge, missions to asteroids and Mars," she said.

Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich wants a lunar colony. Professor Gingrich may have his science right, but the need is for a laboratory, not a colony yet, and his logistics and timetable are a little off.

Gingrich's rival for the GOP nomination, Mitt Romney, calls the plan to colonize the moon a waste of taxpayer money and says he’d like to talk.  He’d like another blue-ribbon commission to repeat what Florida Today’s John Kelly has called "a repeat of the paralysis by analysis of the past eight years."

"Likely end: another dust-gathering study, and little to show for it," Kelly said.

Another Republican hopeful, Rick Santorum, wants to see the private sector much more involved, and candidate Ron Paul supports spending money on space for national defense purposes only.

NASA managers say that President Barack Obama’s administration sees no reason for yet another study. The current occupant of the White House believes that the space plans approved by Congress fit today’s budget and offer the most possible highly skilled jobs.

Of the five main candidates running for president, Obama and Gingrich are in favor an active space program like the one that President John Kennedy got started. Romney and Santorum seem to be indifferent, and Paul is against it. At least that's the way I see it.

'JFK's Bold Decision':  An excerpt from 'Moon Shot'
The successful flight of Alan Shepard as the first American in space solidified questions for John Kennedy about America’s efforts in space. He was willing to take the long-range gamble that American science, technology and industry would persevere with clearly defined goals.

At NBC we learned what the president was up to, and I jumped in. "Americans are going to the moon,” I reported, and my boss, Russ Tornabene, shouted down the phone line, “Barbree, I want you on this. Kennedy is speaking before Congress, and it’s your story.”

Feeling a historic milestone in the making, I covered Kennedy’s congressional address.

Back to the future
Today, I’m still on the job covering spaceflight for NBC, and 51 years after Kennedy clearly defined the country’s goals in space, I have yet to witness or report another space decision made so clearly.

After fulfilling the young president’s goal of landing astronauts on the moon, NASA spent the last decade building the International Space Station — a magnificent job by the space shuttle fleet.

The station has a 15-nation partnership, which includes the United States as well as Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 member nations of the European Space Agency. For the next decade, solid science will be done on the orbital outpost, but because it's only a couple of hundred miles up, Earth’s magnetosphere still protects its crew from radiation. Scientists tell me that the space station will help us learn how to live in space, but not how to travel safely through space.  

When the station has completed its assignment, in 2020 or later, NASA and its partners will have to face the headache of bringing a piece of hardware the size of two football fields safely back back down on Earth. The agency is convinced it can steer it to a breakup during atmospheric re-entry, with a wide shower of burning pieces plopping into the Pacific.  Well, NASA thought the same thing about its much smaller Skylab station, which ended up showering fiery debris on some of unpopulated Australia and its cows in 1979.

There are scientists like McCall who would like to persuade the space station’s partners to move the orbiting laboratory’s salvageable parts and systems to an outpost at the moon’s south pole. The move could be done with present-day rocket technology, climaxing in a soft crash landing on the moon that would free the partnership from dealing with the headache of the station's disposal in Earth's oceans. Some scientists believe they could use the salvageable systems and housing to build a laboratory only three days' journey from Earth, where they could gain the know-how needed to visit an asteroid or Mars.

If the occupants of the White House between now and then keep America’s current space program on track, NASA should have private rocket and spacecraft companies like SpaceX and Boeing taking care of the work in low Earth orbit, while the agency does the job that Congress has envisioned: developing the heavy-lift rockets and Orion spaceships needed for deep-space exploration.

The costs for those deep-space missions and a proposed return to the moon with a lunar laboratory would be easily affordable if shared by an international consortium.

Scientists who should know agree that the lunar target should be Aitken Basin at the moon’s south pole. Aitken is a location they have been studying for more than a decade, and those making the study say it would be the perfect site for a lunar settlement.

Aitken has high ridges that are in sunlight — which is good for solar power — and the lower parts of the crater are in permanent shadow. Amid the darkness of the shadows, scientists expect to find loads of water ice, with lots of hydrogen that could be combined with oxygen to produce breathing air and rocket propellant. Water and ice could also be used to shield the inhabitants of a moon base from solar and galactic radiation.

Because payloads can be lifted from the moon with just one-sixth of the rocket power required on Earth, NASA planners say lunar water can be propelled much more cheaply as a radiation shield for spaceflights to asteroids and Mars.

Many believe scientists at an international lunar laboratory could develop the knowledge needed for the nations of Earth to reach Mars in the 2030s.

"All we need is a coming together," McCall said. "Humans thrive on exploring new lands. Our lives are composed of much more than the food we put in our mouths, or the cash we give to the local automobile dealer.

"Is a lunar laboratory practical?  No, not unless it’s built by many nations. But it is part of what makes being a human worthwhile."

More from 'Getting to Mars':

More from 'Moon Shot':

NBC News' Jay Barbree is the only journalist to cover every spaceflight flown by astronauts from Cape Canaveral. He has won NASA’s highest medal for public service and the National Space Club’s 2009 Press Award. Barbree also has written several books about the space effort, including an updated version of "Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landings," published by Open Road Integrated Media and available from Apple iBookstore, BarnesandNoble.com, Amazon.com, Sony Reader Store  and Kobo Books. "Moon Shot" excerpt updated and reprinted with permission, copyright 2011.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Explainer: Out-of-this-world destinations

  • NASA

    We are headed to Mars ... eventually. But first we need the rocket technology and human spaceflight savvy to get us there safely and efficiently. And the best way to do that is to visit places such as asteroids, our moon, a Martian moon and even no man's lands in space called "Lagrange points," NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained during the unveiling of the agency's revised vision for space exploration.

    The vision shifts focus away from a return to the moon as part of a steppingstone to Mars in favor of what experts call a "flexible path" to space exploration, pushing humans ever deeper into the cosmos.

    Click the "Next" label to check out six other potential destinations astronauts may visit in the years and decades to come en route to Mars.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Lessons to learn on the space station

    NASA

    The cooperation required to build and maintain the International Space Station will be a key to propelling humans on to Mars, according to Louis Friedman, co-founder of The Planetary Society. The society is a space advocacy organization that supports the flexible path to space exploration. In fact, the space station itself could be a training ground for Mars-bound astronauts.

    Astronauts can spend ever longer blocks of time on the station to gain experience in long-duration flights, for example. They could also practice extravehicular activities akin to those expected on a Mars mission, Friedman noted.

  • Lunar orbit, a test of new technology

    NASA

    Lunar orbit, too, is a familiar destination for human spaceflight, but a return to the familiar with new technology would allow astronauts to test the engineering of systems designed to go deeper into space, according to Friedman.

    A return to the moon is still in the cards on the flexible path, but going to lunar orbit first defers the cost of developing the landing and surface systems needed to get in and out of the lunar gravity well, according to experts.

    The famous "Earthrise" image shown here was made in 1968 during Apollo 8, the first human voyage to orbit the moon.

  • Stable no man's lands in space

    NASA / WMAP Science Team

    There are places in space where the gravitational pulls of Earth and the moon, or Earth and the sun, have a balancing effect on a third body in orbit. Those five locations, known as Lagrange points, could offer relatively stable parking spots for astronomical facilities such as space telescopes or satellites. Human spaceflights to these points would allow astronauts to service these instruments.

    In addition, space experts believe a trip to a Lagrange point could serve as a training mission for astronauts headed to points deeper in space, such as an asteroid. Nevertheless, reaching a Lagrange point would be more of a technical achievement than a scientific achievement, according to Friedman. "It is an empty spot in space," he said.

  • Visit an asteroid near you?

    Image: Paraffin candles
    Dan Durda  /  FIAAA

    The first stop astronauts may make in interplanetary space is one of the asteroids that cross near Earth's orbit. Scientists have a keen interest in the space rocks because of the threat that one of them could strike Earth with devastating consequences. An asteroid mission would allow scientists to better understand what makes the rocks tick, and thus how to best divert one that threatens to smack our planet.

    Humans have also never been to an asteroid, which would make such a visit an exciting first, noted Friedman. "Imagine how interesting it will be to see an astronaut step out of a spacecraft and down onto an asteroid and perform scientific experiments," he said. What's more, since asteroids have almost no gravity, an asteroid encounter would be like docking with the space station, which doesn't require a heavy-lift rocket for the return. That makes an asteroid a potentially less expensive destination than the surface of the moon.

  • Back to the moon?

    NASA via Getty Images

    The moon-Mars path of human space exploration originally envisioned the moon as a training ground for a mission to the Red Planet. While the flexible-path strategy broadens the training field, the moon remains a candidate destination, according to NASA.

    Several other nations also have the moon's surface in their sights, including Japan, India and China. Some experts fear the dedicated lunar programs of these nations will eventually leave the United States in the dust as it focuses on an ambiguous flexible path.

    Friedman, of The Planetary Society, said NASA should support the lunar programs of Japan, India and China as part of team building for an international Mars mission, but sees no reason for NASA to focus on the moon. "We've done that already and that was Apollo," he said.

  • Martian moon a final pit stop?

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA

    Before astronauts go all the way to Mars, there's reason to make a final stop at one of its moons, Phobos or Deimos. The two moons are less than 20 miles across at their widest, which means landing on them would be less expensive than the Red Planet itself.

    Friedman used to consider a mission to a Martian moon nonsensical - akin to going to the base camp of Mount Everest instead of going to the top of the mountain. "I've now turned myself around on that, because you do go to the base camp and you do actually conduct training activities there before you attempt the summit," he said.

    "By all means go there," he added. "Test out your rendezvous and docking at Mars, conduct your three-year, round-trip mission, maybe tele-operate some rovers of the surface (of Mars). That will all be interesting and then the next mission will finally go down to the surface."

Photos: The greatest hits from Mars

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  1. The face of Mars

    The Hubble Space Telescope focuses on the full disk of Mars, with a head-on view of a dark feature known as Syrtis Major. Hubble astronomers could make out features as small as 12 miles wide. (AURA / STSCI / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Red, white and blue planet

    Two decades before Pathfinder, the Viking 1 lander sent back America's first pictures from the Martian surface. This 1976 picture shows off the lander's U.S. flag and a Bicentennial logo as well as the planet's landscape. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Grand canyon

    This is a composite of Viking orbiter images that shows the Valles Marineris canyon system. The entire system measures more than 1,875 miles long and has an average depth of 5 miles. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Red rover

    A mosaic of eight pictures shows the Pathfinder probe's Sojourner rover just after it rolled off its ramp. At lower right you can see one of the airbags that cushioned Pathfinder's landing on July 4, 1997. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twin Peaks at their peak

    The Pathfinder probe focuses on Twin Peaks, two hills of modest height on the Martian horizon. Each peak rises about 100 feet above the surrounding rock-littered terrain. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Blue horizon

    A Martian sunset reverses the colors you'd expect on Earth: Most of the sky is colored by reddish dust hanging in the atmosphere, but the scattering of light creates a blue halo around the sun itself. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Two-faced Mars

    The image at left, captured by a Viking orbiter in the 1970s, sparked speculation that Martians had constructed a facelike monument peering into space. But the sharper image at right, sent back in 1998 by Mars Global Surveyor, spoiled the effect. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Put on a happy face

    The "Happy Face Crater" - officially named Galle Crater - puts a humorous spin on the "Face on Mars" controversy. This image was provided by the Mars Global Surveyor orbiter. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. A monster of a mountain

    Mars' highest mountain, an inactive volcano dubbed Olympus Mons, rises as high as three Everests and covers roughly the same area as the state of Arizona. Mars Global Surveyor took this wide-angle view. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Pockmarked moon

    Mars Global Surveyor snapped this picture of Phobos, the larger of Mars' two potato-shaped moons. Phobos' average width is just 14 miles. The image highlights Phobos' 6-mile-wide Stickney Crater. () Back to slideshow navigation
  11. From Mars with love

    This valentine from Mars, as seen by Mars Global Surveyor, is actually a pit formed by a collapse within a straight-walled trough known in geological terms as a graben. The pit spans 1.4 miles at its widest point. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Sandy swirls

    An image taken by Mars Global Surveyor shows a section of the northern sand dunes on Mars' surface. The dunes, composed of dark sand grains, encircle the north polar cap. (JPL / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Curls of clouds

    Global Surveyor focuses on a storm system over Mars' north polar region. The north polar ice cap is the white feature at the top center of the frame. Clouds that appear white consist mainly of water ice. Clouds that appear orange or brown contain dust. (MSSS / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Swiss cheese

    Global Surveyor captured images of a frost pattern at Mars' south polar ice cap that looks like Swiss cheese. The south polar cap is the only region on the Red Planet to contain such formations. (NASA / JPL / Malin Space Science) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Purple Planet

    A false-color image from the Opportunity rover, released Feb. 9, 2004, accentuates the differences between a green-looking slab of Martian bedrock and orange-looking spheres of rock. Scientists likened the "spherules" to blueberries embedded within and scattered around muffins of bedrock. The spherules are thought to have been created by the percolation of mineral-laden water through the bedrock layers. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Dunes of Mars

    A false-color view from NASA's Opportunity rover, released Aug. 6, 2004, shows the dune field at the bottom of Endurance Crater. The bluish tint indicates the presence of hematite-containing spherules ("blueberries") that accumulate on the flat surfaces of the crater floor. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Alien junkyard

    The Opportunity rover looks at its own heat shield, which was jettisoned during the spacecraft's descent back in January 2004, on Dec. 22, 2004. The main structure from the heat shield is at left, with additional debris and the scar left by the shield's impact to the right. The shadow of the rover's observation mast is visible in the foreground. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Devil on Mars

    This image shows a mini-whirlwind, also known as a dust devil, scooting across the plains inside Gusev Crater on Mars, as seen from the Spirit rover's hillside vantage point on April 18, 2005. (NASA / JPL) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Rub al Khali

    The tracks of NASA's Opportunity rover are visible in a panoramic picture of a desolate, sandy stretch of Martian terrain in Meridiani Planum, photographed in May 2005 and released by NASA on July 28. "Rub al Khali" (Arabic for "Empty Quarter") was chosen as the title of this panorama because that is the name of a similarly barren, desolate part of the Saudi Arabian desert on Earth. (NASA / JPL / Cornell University) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Double moons

    Taking advantage of extra solar energy collected during the day, NASA's Spirit rover spent a night stargazing, photographing the two moons of Mars as they crossed the night sky. The large bright moon is Phobos; the smaller one to its left is Deimos. (NASA / JPL / Cornell / Texas A&M) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Mars in the round

    A 360-degree panorama shows a stretched-out view of NASA's Spirit rover and its surroundings on the summit of Husband Hill, within Mars' Gusev Crater. The imagery for the panorama was acquired in August, and the picture was released on Dec. 5. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Fossil delta

    Scientifically, perhaps the most important result from use of the Mars Orbiter Camera on NASA's Mars Global Surveyor has been the discovery in November 2003 of a fossil delta located in a crater northeast of Holden Crater. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Underneath the ice

    This view taken in January 2005 shows sharp detail of a scarp at the head of Chasma Boreale, a large trough cut by erosion into the Martian north polar cap and the layered material beneath the ice cap. (NASA / JPL / MSSS) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Celestial celebration

    Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., cheer on Friday after hearing that Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter successfully made it into orbit around the Red Planet. (Phil McCarten / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. AURA / STSCI / NASA
    Above: Slideshow (24) The greatest hits from Mars
  2. Image:
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    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

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