America's Journey to Mars: The Time Is Now | Commentary

Shortly after dawn on Dec. 5, we watched in awe as the first launch in America’s new era of deep space exploration lit the skies.

Millions followed along as NASA’s Orion spacecraft lifted off on its inaugural test flight, taking Americans on the first steps in our journey to Mars and deep space.

Orion traveled farther than any spacecraft built for humans has ventured for more than 40 years, circling the Earth twice at speeds of 20,000 miles per hour and enduring a punishing trial-by-fire on re-entry into our atmosphere. The mission was documented on the front pages of more than 150 newspapers worldwide and celebrated in more than 5 billion social media impressions.

That intense public interest demonstrated that NASA’s return to deep space human exploration is truly a national achievement — a result of careful stewardship and steadfast bipartisan support for NASA’s mission and resources. Congress has supported the space program during times of triumph and tragedy and has helped to steady the course of exploration and discovery.

As we look to the future, political support for the nation’s leadership in space exploration has never been more important. America is at a critical juncture in its journey to place human footprints on the surface of Mars. Now is the time to accelerate the progress that Congress has made possible.

Next Steps in the Journey

In 2018, Orion will launch again, this time on the first “super heavy” exploration rocket since the mighty Saturn V.

The Space Launch System will open the door to new voyages of discovery in science and exploration. Today, we’re laying the vital foundation for our future in space. In factories across 48 states, a new generation of Americans is creating the powerful rockets, spacecraft, software, tooling and parts that will eventually carry us to Mars and beyond.

At the same time, robotic missions have fanned out into the solar system, conducting groundbreaking science and sending back the data we need to better understand the universe and the road ahead.

Closer to home, the International Space Station provides a research platform for humans and technology and the basis for international cooperation in space — our springboard into deep space. The International Space Station also provides the first steps toward a sustainable space economy.

By supporting each of these integrated elements, Congress is ensuring the success of our national vision for space exploration, and supporting the thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians who work tirelessly on these efforts every day.

Value to the Nation

Our national investment in space pays dividends here on Earth, benefitting our economy, security, global leadership, education and technical innovation. The unique engineering challenges associated with deep space exploration require manufacturing with extraordinary precision and new materials. We’re expanding the possibilities for 3D printing, learning how to create tools and equipment “on demand” and dramatically reducing costs and complexity.

We’re building lighter, stronger, cheaper composite structures that have applications in a variety of other industries.

We’re developing new design techniques using virtual reality software that lets us create complex systems in bits and bytes before we ever bend metal, reducing costs and shaving months from development timelines. We’re building advanced algorithms to speed decision-making, leapfrogging months and years of trial-and-error discovery from earlier eras.

Finally, the challenge of keeping humans healthy and productive on the long journey into space is driving us to better understand our own genetics, and to develop techniques for combatting bone and muscle loss that have already enhanced quality of life for our citizens well into their golden years.

Innovation, leadership, and benefits for our citizens on Earth — that’s what our national investment in the journey to Mars and beyond delivers for America.

Act Now to Ensure the Future

The SLS and Orion are making great progress, building momentum toward our next steps on the journey into deep space. Congress can ensure that America meets that goal by keeping those programs — and the scientific missions that light our path — supported, funded and on track.

America’s greatest achievements have always been built on conviction, determination and leadership. Our journey to Mars and beyond is no different. We look to Congress’ continuing commitment and leadership to chart the course to that future.

Doug Cooke is the former leader of NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate and retired in 2011 after a distinguished 38-year NASA career. He is currently an aerospace consultant. Dan Dumbacher, professor of engineering practice at Purdue University, is the former deputy associate administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.