•Confirm NASA's organizational vision. Should it still emphasize research and exploration?
•Enact a measure that assures enough continuity of funding for a challenging 10-year space exploration program with humans.
•Decide on the next outer space destination for human spaceflight. The destination must be worthwhile, challenging, exciting and achievable. I believe that the choice is Mars.
•While continuing associated robotic missions, immediately start a five-year or longer destination-focused research effort to better understand and mitigate specific issues related to sending people to Mars. Especially helpful would be more efficient propulsion (nuclear or Vasimr plasma rockets), which could cut the flight time to Mars to a little over a month.
•During the research phase, finalize the Mars reference missions and examine technology readiness to proceed with a 10-year landing program.
•If research results and public support for sending people to Mars are positive and sufficient, proclaim a national goal of sending humans to Mars and returning them safely to Earth.
•Develop a detailed program plan. Staff the key program positions. Quality of program and engineering management will be critical. Precursor missions will help to train the workforce.
•Accomplish the Mars human landings under an international program with U.S. leadership.
The U.S. needs a worthwhile yet exciting challenge that will help to lift the country out of its malaise. Continuation of deep-space exploration not only will reinvigorate America's international leadership, it will stimulate education, basic research, innovation, employment and the economy. We are approaching a tipping point. Let's get started before we lose our deep space exploration capabilities.
By Vance Brand