Late Tuesday night, astronaut Scott Kelly (and some Russian dude that no one apparently cares about) finally returned to Earth after spending 340 days in space. Kelly’s twin brother, also an astronaut, stayed on Earth for the last year so NASA could run some cool experiments on the two of them and see exactly how a prolonged stay in space affects the human body. The stated purpose of this year-long adventure was to see if a manned mission to Mars is really feasible and to make sure an extended period of time without a real bathroom wouldn’t lead to a mental breakdown or the space radiation doesn’t leave anyone dealing with unwanted super powers.
It was a pretty cool mission overall and Kelly conducted a number of experiments on board the ISS, like growing flowers and wearing vacuum pants. But how realistic is the dream to send people to Mars by 2030?
The space program has been faltering a little bit for the last several years, suffering from a lack of funding and a lack of public interest in space exploration. The Space Shuttle program was canceled in 2011, and we’ve been living a Cold War era nightmare since then, relying on the Russian space program to transport Americans to and from the ISS via a launchpad in Kazakhstan. If NASA can’t even afford to send our own astronauts on the 250-mile trip from Earth to the space station, how can we manage to send anyone on the 140-million-mile trip from Earth to Mars? 2030 sounds like a crazy date way in the future but that’s really just less than two decades away.
Space exploration is super important and something more people should care about. As of 2015, NASA’s annual budget was $19 billion, which sounds like a lot until you realize that it makes up less than 1 percent of national spending. It’s been estimated to cost somewhere in the realm of $500 billion to complete a manned mission to Mars. That’s a lot more money than anyone would be willing to put up for a trip to another planet that doesn’t even have beaches (or a livable atmosphere).
Hopefully, Scott Kelly’s (and Matt Damon’s) time in space has managed to grab the interest of the American public enough to reinvigorate the old space race mentality we had in the Apollo days. If enough people get excited about space travel again, it could create a compelling reason for more federal funds to be allocated to NASA. For now though, the dream of sending people to Mars is still pretty far off.