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Friday 18 April 2014

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Commentary

The Economics of Mars: It’s Time to be Bold

by chris carberry

The geopolitical dynamics of the 21st century will be a lot different from the latter half of the 20th century — and although the United States will not be as dominant as it was in the post-World War II years, we can still maintain leadership in technology and innovation. To help assure this, we need to understand our strengths and be willing to take risks — as we have throughout our history.

One of these strengths is space exploration. Some may argue this is not the right budgetary time to engage in space missions. But this is exactly the right time. At less than half of 1 percent of the federal budget, dollar for dollar NASA can have a much more dramatic impact on the national psyche and, as a result, the economy than any other federal agency. No other agency has as much power to stimulate morale, inspire students to enter into STEM — Science, technology, engineering and math — studies, and create high-paying jobs that will fuel the economy.

The commercial sector will play a key role in space exploration. On May 25, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 successfully docked with the International Space Station. This marked a new era, and we should celebrate this milestone and look forward. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, every dollar spent in the commercial space transportation industry resulted in $4.90 in indirect and induced economic impact.

Globally the space economy grew to $289.77 billion in 2011, “reflecting a surprisingly robust single-year expansion of 12.2 percent and five-year growth of 41 percent in a global economy that has been suppressed in many other sectors,” according to The Space Report (2012) released by the Space Foundation in April. Space Foundation CEO Elliot Pulham said, “Space is good business .”

But the United States is lagging, and we need bold new steps to invigorate the inspiration, innovation and economic impact that once drove the space industry.

The United States should commit to a goal worthy of our bold history of exploration: landing humans on Mars by 2030. Some say that we as a nation are not as interested in space exploration as we used to be. This is not correct. Once people believe we are going to Mars, they will get excited. When the Pathfinder rover landed on Mars, there were more than 550 million hits on NASA’s website in the first month alone. It was new, it was exciting and people could connect and be inspired by it. Imagine the inspiration of a human mission.

Across the nation, computer technology, nanotechnology, medical science and biochemistry, among other areas, are moving ahead at breathtaking speed in laboratories, universities, hospitals and small companies. But we need to guarantee that we have a sufficient number of STEM students in the educational pipeline to sustain our leadership. Space exploration will supply jobs at many skill levels, but we must inspire at least some students to meet the demands of the most highly skilled jobs. Space exploration can encourage this like no other activity.

This August, the Mars Science Laboratory lands on Mars. It is by far the most ambitious NASA mission to ever be sent to another planet. It will not only send back the most dramatic images ever taken on the surface of Mars, but could move us closer to understanding whether Mars has ever been able to sustain life. This can serve as that watershed moment in time to begin a new phase in space exploration and to use that program to stimulate interest in STEM education, innovation, and a positive future for our country.

Chris Carberry is executive director and co-founder of Explore Mars. www.exploremars.org In addition to his abiding interest in space, Chris is an author, composer, and Kung Fu master with an interest in politics and history.

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