- - Monday, July 8, 2019


Politicking is about possibilities and promises, and President Trump used both in opening his bid for re-election. The most ambitious item in the category of “promises made, promises kept” is preparing astronauts for a trip to Mars.

The president described a flurry of goals for his second term: “We will come up with the cures to many, many problems, to many, many diseases, including cancer and others, and we’re getting closer all the time. We will eradicate AIDS in America once and for all, and we’re very close. We will lay the foundation for landing American astronauts on the surface of Mars and, above all, we will never stop fighting for the values that hold us together.”

Small goals and timid dreams have no power to inspire anyone, as the philosophers say, and making off for Mars holds the greatest opportunity for an epochal leap forward, not just for the United States, but for the planet and all the people on it. Apart from the ultimate resource — the intelligence, imagination and smarts that enable men and women to innovate and adapt — the raw material for human progress awaits discovery somewhere out there in the blue beyond.

NASA announced last month that its scientists have discovered an interesting new crater on Mars, apparently caused by a meteor strike sometime between September 2016 and February 2019. The tantalizing part of the surprise is that the impact has uncovered blue and purple matter beneath the red surface soil and dust and analysts say it could be water ice. It’s too early to be sure, but if the hue proves the presence of ice there might be an abundance of water — a precious natural resource necessary for human exploration of the red planet and eventually permanent habitation.

Practice makes perfect, and the moon provides a ready test ground for polishing the risky art of interplanetary travel. Using a sensible, “two-phased approach,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in May that the 2024 Artemis Moon Program will return U.S. astronauts to the nearby orb, where no foot has stepped since 1972. A “sustainable human presence” in orbit around or on the moon’s surface would follow by 2028. Building on the experience of using reusable modules from orbit to the surface and back, the space agency plans to shove off for Mars during the 2030s.

Private enterprise, hungry for the resources just out of reach, has joined the race to the red planet. Elon Musk’s Space X project is partnering with NASA to make supply runs to the International Space Station as a means of testing its Dragon capsule for future manned missions and to lay the groundwork for its unfinished Starship launch to Mars around 2024. Boeing is competing stride for stride with Space X, readying its Starliner vehicle for manned missions to the space station. Technical setbacks besetting both firms could keep U.S. astronauts earthbound until next year. Further delays might require NASA to return to hitchhiking into space with the Russians.

Mr. Trump’s space exploration may last only as long as his presidency does; there is no guarantee his successor would stay the interplanetary course. If the United States falters on the verge of the vast, empty chasm, other intrepid adventurers are ready to seize the challenge.

China, for one, is already preparing to get in the game. Following President Xi Jinping’s vow to make his nation a “space giant,” China landed a rover on the far side of the moon in January, and the “Jade Rabbit” rover has been creeping over the lunarscape since.

Beijing trails the United States in the race to space, but the world’s most populous nation is clearly intent on making the most of its foothold on Earth’s closest companion. “The moon, especially, offers vast opportunities for mining and the production of space-based solar-power installations, which have the potential to increase the national energy output exponentially,” writes Jack H. Burke in National Review. China’s ambitions, evidenced by its current expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea, aren’t likely to end on the moon.

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