Marine Corps Base Quantico --
It’s the one question that NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. hears wherever he goes.
And the retired Marine major general has the same answer every time.
“We’re on a journey to Mars,” he told an audience of Marine Corps University students, faculty and guests during his speech at Little Hall on Dec. 16 as the Thomas Lord Charitable Trust Lecture sponsored by MCU and the Marine Corps University Foundation. “As we learn more and more about Mars, we really learn more about our own planet.”
Some of the dignitaries in attendance included Maj. Gen. James W. Lukeman, commanding general, Training and Education Command; Maj. Gen. Andrew W. O’Donnell Jr., deputy commanding general, Marine Corps Combat Development Command; Brig. Gen. Helen G. Pratt, president, Marine Corps University; and Col. David W. Maxwell, commander, Marine Corps Base Quantico.
Bolden’s speech extolling the virtues of future deep-space exploration came almost exactly 42 years to the date since the last manned mission to the moon during Apollo 17 in December 1972. He noted afterward that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin - the first men to set foot on the moon in 1969 during the Apollo 11 mission - considered themselves pioneers at the forefront of a new age of space exploration that would soon include Mars.
That didn’t happen as budget constraints and the lack of a national will to continue stifled the deep space program in subsequent years, Bolden said.
Bolden, whose 34 years in the Marine Corps included 14 as an astronaut and four space shuttle missions, called the decision “disappointing,” but has been thrilled by a renewed global resolve to again reach for the heavens, most notably the red planet that has long fascinated those on Earth.
A more determined NASA is moving steadily forward with plans to land humans on an asteroid by 2025 before putting the first men on Mars sometime in the 2030s.
“This is exciting stuff, and these are exciting times,” Bolden said.
That same fascination with space exploration is what prompted Expeditionary Warfare School students, Capt. Gabriel Algarin and Army Capt. Robert White, to attend.
“It gives you a proper perspective about Earth,” Algarin said. “You realize how big the universe is and how we’re just a little speck in it.”
The road to Mars figures to be both lengthy and costly, but so far, so good. Most recently, NASA celebrated the launch and successful return of its Orion space capsule that is designed to eventually carry humans to deep space. The unmanned space craft performed “almost flawlessly” in climbing to 3,600 miles above earth for America’s deepest space venture since the heady days of the Apollo programs.
“We were all like kids in a candy store,” Bolden said of the capsule’s successful test. “We get giddy when stuff like this happens.”
The successful tests of the capsule’s command and control and thermal protection systems was preceded a fleet of robotic spacecraft deployed to Mars from several nations and NASA rovers that featured significant international involvement.
The Orion spacecraft will eventually become NASA’s primary deep space vehicles, replacing the aging fleet of space shuttles that were retired from service for good as of July 2011. Russia currently remains the lone means of American astronauts reaching the International Space Station for now, but NASA will continue to work with both private and commercial partners to provide transport to the ISS, which is jointly run with the cooperation of 22 different countries and five different space agencies.
Bolden defended the program’s costs, citing the many technological benefits in fields such as aeronautics, water recycling and farming among others that can be easily applied to improve daily life on Earth.
But he cautioned that any future NASA success will hinge on continued global cooperation.
“It’s clear that no one nation can do it alone,” he said, “and the benefits that can be gained are for all humanity.”