Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientist, saw her first rocket launch at age four. Her father worked at NASA as an engineer, and the thrill of space exploration captured her imagination from an early age. But at a Future Tense film screening of The Dish in Washington, D.C., last week, Stofan acknowledged that for many people she meets, what first sparked a space obsession was the Apollo program—President John F. Kennedy’s audacious commitment in 1961 to putting Americans on the moon before the end of the decade.
Today, NASA’s goal to put astronauts on Mars by the 2030s could be a similarly unifying project. And not only in the United States. A far cry from the fierce Cold War Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, exploration in the 21st century is likely to be a far more globally collaborative project.
Why has the idea of reaching Mars captured the world? A trip to Mars is a priority for many scientific reasons—some believe it’s the planet that most resembles our own, and one that could answer the age-old question of whether we’re alone in the universe—but there’s also been a long popular fascination with the planet, Stofan observed. Ever since Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli first observed the canali on Mars in the 1800s or when H.G. Wells wrote about aliens from Mars in his 1898 science fiction novel, The War of the Worlds, the planet has loomed large in the public’s imagination.
NASA’s view is to turn over to the private sector those projects that in a sense have become routine so that it can focus its resources on getting to Mars.
And perhaps it’s this historic obsession that partly explains the more international effort: the U.S. is hardly the only country dreaming of deep space—and a trip to Mars—these days. India has plans to put astronauts in the sky, Japan just launched a spacecraft to collect asteroid samples, and, of course, the European Space Agency had the recent, hugely successful Rosetta mission and Philae lander. It seems that what Apollo did for America’s imagination and spirit of invention, foreign space programs can also do domestically. “You see countries like India really investing in their space program because they see it as inspirational and good for their economy,” Stofan told the audience.
The truth is, as Stofan put it, “When we go to explore, we do it as a globe.” In a conversation outside the event, she recounted the stories of some of the astronauts featured in the 2007 documentary, In the Shadow of the Moon, who traveled the world after they returned from the Apollo missions of the 1960s and '70s. People from all sorts of countries welcomed them, not just as Americans, but as “our astronauts.”
“People see space as a place where you go and cooperate,” she told me.
This spirit of trans-border ownership and investment seems set to continue. One key part of this is the Global Exploration Roadmap, an effort between space agencies like NASA, France’s Centre National d'Etudes Spatiales, the Canadian Space Agency, and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, among many others, that is intended to aid joint projects from the International Space Station to expeditions to the Moon and near-Earth asteroids—and to reach Mars. On a recent trip to India’s space agency, Stofan recounted to me, she met with many Indian engineers who were just as excited as the Americans to get scientists up there, not only to explore, but also to begin nailing down the question of whether there was ever life on the red planet.
It’s also clear that the next stage of space exploration will not only be more global, but will equally involve greater private and public partnerships. Companies like Space X and Boeing are increasingly involved in NASA’s day-to-day operations, including a joint project that could carry astronauts into space in 2017. NASA’s view is to turn over to the private sector those projects that in a sense have become routine, Stofan suggested, so that it can focus its resources on getting to Mars.
This environment feels a lot different from the secretive and adversarial Space Race days, when the U.S. and Soviet Union battled to reach the moon first. What’s changed? The Cold War is over, of course, but with it, the funding commitment may also be missing this time around. Stofan mentioned, in response to an audience question, that at the time of the Apollo missions, NASA got up to about four percent of the federal budget, while now it’s only around 0.4 percent. The dollars are still large, but perhaps increased international and private cooperation can be seen as an efficient, clever way to do more with less.
So, what does the future hold? NASA is extremely focused on how to get to Mars and back again safely, Stofan told the audience, but the fun role of science fiction, she suggested, is to start envisioning what the steps after that might be. For example, what might it be like to live on Mars? After all, science often gets its inspiration from the creative world. Just look at how similar mobile phones are to the communicators from Star Trek, she pointed out, or the fact that MIT students made a real-life version of the robotic sphere that Luke Skywalker trains with in Star Wars. “Stories are a great counterpoint to science,” she said.
What would Stofan like to see on the big screen next? “The Martian. I think it’s being made into a movie already. And I wish someone would re-do The Dune.”
This post originally appeared in New America’s digital magazine, The Weekly Wonk, a Pacific Standard partner site. Sign up to get The Weekly Wonk delivered to your inbox, and follow @NewAmerica on Twitter.