In the past year or so, scientists have discovered more evidence for liquid water under the surface of Mars. They've found complex organic compounds — the building blocks of life. And they've found that methane levels in Mars' atmosphere vary with the seasons.
"Each of these things adds up to say that the probability of finding life on a world that's not our own is going up," says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. "And Mars, I think, is that best opportunity in our own solar system to find life on another world."
The former Republican congressman from Oklahoma became the head of NASA in April 2018. Since then, he has had a lot to do to get ready for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, but he's making sure the agency continues to look forward for its next mission: a crewed mission to Mars.
But before humans can go to Mars, they have to get back to the moon.
"It just so happens that the moon is a proving ground, so we can go to the moon and we can learn how to live and work on another world," says Bridenstine. "How do we retire the risk? Prove the technology and then take all of that to Mars."
Bridenstine sat down with NPR at NASA headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C., to talk about the timeline for getting humans to Mars and why going back to the moon is so critical to a new era of space exploration.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Why do humans have to go to Mars? You could send robots. Artificial intelligence has come along and could study the possibility of life on Mars.
There's a number of reasons, but No. 1, I think the most important is that you can do a whole lot more science, a lot faster, with humans than you can ever do with a robot.
For example, the Mars Curiosity rover, which has been an amazing scientific tool, has traveled maybe 20 kilometers in its life on Mars. With a human, there for 30 to 90 days, we can do a whole lot more discovery, a whole lot faster, a whole lot more accurately. We can bring samples back.
The other thing is we have this innate sense in us that we want to go further and explore and discover and do it with humans. I mean, that's who we are as a country, in fact that's what humanity desires. That's how we came to the New World, that's how we went west once we came to the New World. And of course now we're expanding that to the moon and on to Mars.
What's your time frame to go to the moon and get to Mars?
2024 to go to the moon and Mars by the mid-2030s.
Why does it take four years to get to the moon when the U.S. was there 50 years ago?
That's a wonderful question. The reason is, we haven't had a program to go to the moon. We don't have a lander that can take a human to the moon. It doesn't exist. So we're starting from scratch and we're starting as a matter of fact this month.
Why? Is that because the budget has finally come online to enable you to plan?
That's right. So in the past we put together plans as an agency, but the politics never materialized. The budget got cut. Administrations changed. One of the ways we're going to stay outside the political risk, if you will, is to accelerate the program. We don't want to go 15 years from now, we want to go faster.
Now in order to achieve that, I told the president and the vice president we're going to need some additional funds. We need an additional $1.6 billion for the year 2020. And they were very gracious and said "OK, well, we'll make that happen."
But how do you lock that in? Because, as you said, administrations change, and this one will — whether it's 2020 or 2024.
That's why we need strong bipartisan support in the House and in the Senate. I come from the House of Representatives myself. We're working really hard to make sure that bipartisan support continues, and that this can be an all-of-America program that ultimately spans multiple administrations going into the future. That's the objective.
What do you make of the fact that most Americans say they don't really care about getting back to the moon or to Mars? A poll from The Associated Press in June found that most Americans say that shouldn't be the priority. Americans say the No. 1 priority should be studying meteors and making sure that the Earth is not about to get hit.
So these missions are not separate. In fact, the rocket that we're using to get to the moon is the exact rocket that we would use if we had a meteor that was going to hit the Earth and we needed to do some kind of intervention.
Now, do you want to develop that rocket specifically for meteors, or do you want to use it for a purpose in the meantime? You don't want to use it for the first time for a meteor that could impact the earth. I will tell you that in any poll that you look at, Americans want the United States of America to lead in space exploration. This is the way to do it. And I think this is an important mission for our country.
So make the case: With so many pressing problems, from national security to roads needing fixing to health care, why should we spend money getting to Mars as a country?
Let's put it this way. People said the same thing when we were trying to go to the moon in the 1960s. It was not the most popular program in the United States government and here we are. What are we doing? We are celebrating the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, 50 years afterwards.
If you look at how people are listening to this right now, maybe some are listening on XM radio, maybe some are going to get it on the Internet using Internet broadband from space. All of these capabilities were developed by this little agency called NASA, during a time we called Apollo. And now it's all been commercialized, privatized. We're talking about a multihundred-billion-dollar industry. And that's just communications. But look at navigation. You talk about GPS and other technology developed by NASA during our spaceflight era.
You're making the case that what Americans managed to accomplish in space has tangible impacts in terms of life here on Earth.
Our legacy is elevating and transforming the human condition in ways that most people don't even think about on a day-to-day basis.
The other thing that's important, we want to do missions where 50 years from the day that mission is accomplished we are looking back. Everybody who is alive when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, they know exactly where they were when that day happened. I wasn't alive back then. I don't have that memory. My generation does not have that memory. What our memory is, is watching the Challenger explode with Christa McAuliffe on board.
Space shuttle is an amazing program. International Space Station, built by the space shuttles, is an amazing program. But we don't have that monumental, very historic achievement, on a positive note, where people remember exactly where they were. That's what we need to create. And if we do that all of these transformative technologies will emerge just like they did after Apollo.