Chris Carberry is executive director of Explore Mars.
We, as Americans, love superheroes. The Avengers recently broke box office records, and movies like Batman: The Dark Knight Rises and Men in Black 3 are sure to attract huge crowds this summer. We watch a constant stream of movies and television shows featuring individuals with superhuman abilities. It is clear that the public has an insatiable hunger for larger-than-life characters who accomplish great deeds on behalf of humanity.
But where are the real heroes? There is no question that members of the military, police, and firefighters fall into this category, but at present we are missing other real life heroes like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. While John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin are still with us, unfortunately their accomplishments have become a distant memory that fewer and fewer of today's generations relate to. These individuals, and those like them, broke barriers, were trailblazers and were a strong positive force in our society. They were not heroes simply because they accomplished hazardous missions, but also because they became larger-than-life-symbols of doing the impossible. They helped inspire countless people globally to become the scientists, engineers, and innovators of the past 40 years. We could certainly use this type of hero today.
This is not to say that we always need living heroes to inspire innovation or extraordinary events. Early on the morning of August 6, 2012, the Mars Science Laboratory will land on the surface of Mars. The Laboratory is by far the most ambitious mission to be sent to another planet. If successful, it will not only send back the most dramatic images ever taken on the surface of Mars, it will move us much closer to understanding whether Mars was able to sustain life in its past. If history is any indication, hundreds of millions of people around the globe will flock to the Laboratory's website to view the extraordinary images and science coming in. For example, in 2004, the Mars Exploration Rover missions received two terabytes of data hits in the first four days, and this was prior to the proliferation of the social media we have today.
As impressive as landing the Mars Science Laboratory will be, imagine the impact that landing humans on Mars would have. Had we landed robots on the moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s, those landings would have made only a marginal societal impact. Robotic missions would have been of great scientific value and would have captured the attention of the general public for a while, but they would not have inspired a generation of innovators and scientists. The missions would have been a cultural blip on the radar. But we did not land robots, we landed humans, and the moon landings are considered some of the greatest events of human history. They transformed our view of what is possible and inspired millions of people around the world. Despite our being in the depths of both the Cold War and the Vietnam War when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped on the surface of the moon, people around the world collectively saw great and positive possibilities for our future.
We need to enable this type of hero. We, as a country, must recommit ourselves to a human mission to Mars by the year 2030. Let's use our modest investment in space exploration—NASA receives an extremely small percentage of the federal budget (less than half of one percent)—to move the nation forward technologically, scientifically, physiologically, and competitively. While some will say that now is not the time to engage in such a mission, in reality, this is precisely the right time. The United States is currently suffering from a confidence problem. We need to be reminded that we are still capable of great accomplishments. By committing to a human mission to Mars and precursor programs like the Mars Science Laboratory, we will be investing in high-level, well-paying jobs that will keep the United States strong for decades to come.
Space exploration is not the only way to stimulate innovation and national momentum, but it can be one of the most effective ways. Whoever is sworn in as president of the United States in January 2013 can help shift the direction of the nation, and has the opportunity to stimulate innovation and scientific discovery.