President Barack Obama has announced an ambitious goal to send humans to Mars by the 2030s.
"We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America's story in space," President Obama declared in an op-ed for CNN.
The president's plan called for the astronauts to return safely to Earth after visiting the Red Planet "with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time."
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President Obama said the plan would involve "continued cooperation between government and private innovators," meaning NASA would not be doing it alone. He specifically cited the country's growing private aerospace sector, which he said now encompasses more than 1,000 companies.
"Just five years ago, US companies were shut out of the global commercial launch market," the president said. "Today, thanks to groundwork laid by the men and women of NASA, they own more than a third of it."
President Obama praised the NASA's pioneering work during the space race with the Soviet Union a half-century ago. The competition advanced science and technology, he said, and "inspired a new generation of scientists and engineers with the right stuff to keep America on the cutting edge."
He dubbed present-day students as "the Mars generation."
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As far as progress on space travel, President Obama cited a number of projects and scientific discoveries as paving the way for the event. Among them: NASA recently selected aviation giant Boeing (ba) and reusable rocket startup SpaceX, founded by the billionaire PayPal (pypl) and Tesla (tsla) co-creator Elon Musk, to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station by 2018.
The latest call to action echoes statements the president made in April 2010 during a visit to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. "By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth," he said at the time. "A landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it."
The trip to the space center, which coincided the president's announcement of a multiyear $6 billion investment in NASA, took place months after the president had canceled Constellation, an over-budget human spaceflight program run by the space agency. That budgetary decision met with backlash from critics, including former astronauts Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, and Eugene Cernan, the last.
Notably, President Obama gave a nod to Cernan in the CNN piece: "When our Apollo astronauts looked back from space, they realized that while their mission was to explore the moon, they had 'in fact discovered the Earth,'" he said, alluding to a quote attributed to the Apollo 17 astronaut and commander of NASA's last manned moon mission in 1972.
"If we make our leadership in space even stronger in this century than it was in the last, we won't just benefit from related advances in energy, medicine, agriculture and artificial intelligence, we'll benefit from a better understanding of our environment and ourselves," the president said in justification of the undertaking.
Now in his last months in the Oval Office, President Obama said he hopes one day "to hoist my own grandchildren onto my shoulders" to marvel at the universe and humanity's progress toward exploring it. The task will be up to future administrations to see through, however.