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The Mars Decision 

Robert Zubrin

How to show that American democracy can still do great things

There was a bittersweet quality to the recent celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the first lunar landing. It was an occasion of justifiable American pride — after all, sending men to the Moon in the late 1960s and early 1970s was not only a feat of human ingenuity and daring but a spectacular national accomplishment, one that, as Jules Verne had sagely predicted a century earlier, only Americans could pull off. But in the half-century since Apollo 11, NASA’s human spaceflight program has stagnated. It has had very few memorable successes and certainly performed no comparably glorious feats.

Why not? At the time of the Moon landing, it was generally expected that the United States would quickly go on to Mars. Even several of the Apollo astronauts believed, as they described in their memoirs, that after going to the Moon they might help the United States reach the Red Planet. Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins recalled thinking “perhaps I could help them [NASA] plan” a Mars mission. Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man on the Moon, remembered feeling that “it wasn’t unreasonable to hope” he’d be assigned to a Mars-bound crew. Gene Cernan, the twelfth and last man on the Moon, recounted with sadness the time that he “finally faced the facts: ‘I’m not going to Mars.’”

Many explanations have been offered over the years for why American astronauts have not been sent on to Mars — or anywhere else of note — in the years since Apollo. Three explanations in particular stand out for being widely believed. Each of these explanations is intuitively plausible. Each has a kernel of truth. But these explanations are so incomplete as to be misleading. And taken together, they amount to a profound misunderstanding of how democratic peoples can do great things...

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Robert Zubrin is the founder of the Mars Society and the president of Pioneer Astronautics. His latest book, The Case for Space: How the Revolution in Spaceflight Opens Up a Future of Limitless Possibility, was recently published by Prometheus Books.

Robert Zubrin, "The Mars Decision," The New Atlantis, Number 60, Fall 2019, pp. 46-60.