Recommitting the nation to space exploration on the 55th anniversary of JFK’s address to Congress

The United States has converged on sending humans to Mars as the goal for human exploration of deep space. Experts agree, while challenging, the goal is within reach, but only if we have the proper discipline and commit the needed resources.

The notion of extending human presence beyond Earth is not science fiction. It is a goal authorized in law. It is in our hands to shepherd our space program towards that goal for the benefit of future generations.

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson. Credit: Office of U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson. Credit: Office of U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson

Fifty-five years ago on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy recognized the commitment needed to send humans to the moon and return them safely to Earth within the decade: “Let it be clear-and this is a judgment which the Members of the Congress must finally make-let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs …”

He asked us to accept a firm commitment and we did. And the results were profound.

The decision we face as a nation today is not only about sending humans to the surface of Mars, it is about the future of our lives on our home planet. In his speech, President Kennedy said, “Now it is time to take longer strides, time for a great new American enterprise, time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on Earth.”

President Kennedy’s foresight enabled NASA to play a constructive role in our society. As one of the nation’s crown jewels, NASA is a source of technological and scientific innovation, an inspiration to generations, a catalyst for economic growth, and a positive symbol of American preeminence worldwide, as well as a demonstration of our commitment to international cooperation in the peaceful uses of space.

In a few months, this country will decide on its next president. I encourage Congress to work with the next administration to ensure a smooth transition and to sustain the progress that has been made on our NASA programs. And I encourage the next president to seek a commitment of this nation to sending humans to the surface of Mars. Fifty-five years ago, this nation was given a choice: “I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment, to which we have given attention over many weeks and months, because it is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful.”

What choice will we make today? I believe sending humans to Mars is worthy of our great nation and can think of no better way of honoring the 55th anniversary of President Kennedy’s address than by recommitting the nation to the next step in human space exploration — sending humans to the surface of Mars.

NASA, in cooperation with its university and industry partners, has made laudable progress on the key systems that will enable U.S. astronauts to return to deep space exploration. In the four years since NASA solidified the design approach for a heavy-lift vehicle and a crew exploration vehicle, hardware and software are being built and tested, and we are looking toward the first integrated uncrewed demonstration flight of both the SLS rocket and Orion crew vehicle in 2018.

While the initial systems needed to send humans to Mars are underway, we are just beginning. Critical systems such as a human habitat and closed-loop life support are required, as are the means to protect astronauts from space radiation. The road to Mars will be a multi-decadal endeavor. And while the challenges are formidable, they can be overcome if the nation commits the will and the resources to do so.

Congress and the next administration must lead the way.

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) is the Ranking Member on the House Science and Technology Committee.