For NASA, it has to be Mars or a statue

Since the Apollo program ended nearly 50 years ago, every newly elected US president has been troubled by the same question: Where next should astronauts be sent?

NASA’s current target is the moon, but the moon belongs to an earlier generation of American pioneers. The biggest and most fitting ambition of the space program that first landed humans on another celestial body is Mars – the destination NASA has been preparing to reach since its first sighting days. Now is the time to fulfill their dream.

The Artemis program is today’s NASA focus of human spaceflight. Its goal is to place astronauts on the surface of the Moon by 2024, but the outlook for that date is bleak. There is still no well-defined mission plan, and work on the Artemis rocket and capsule is behind schedule and over budget.

As for sending astronauts to Mars, NASA has always been a baffling two decades away from sending astronauts to Mars, thanks to the changing priorities of successive presidents. Think about switching operations since 1988, when George HW Bush pushed back to the moon, with a mission to Mars follow. Bill Clinton canceled the moon plan (not to mention Mars) and embraced the International Space Station. George W. Bush has revived the Moon and Mars sequence. Barack Obama canceled the moon portion of the program, saying NASA “was there, and it did,” choosing instead the asteroid and then Mars mission. Donald Trump rejected the Mars plan, choosing instead to get to the moon with Artemis, but NASA still says Mars is on its agenda.

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