Exactly 30 years ago, the Reagan White House was in the midst of choosing the members of a National Commission on Space (NCOS) to satisfy Title II of the FY1985 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 98-361).

A year earlier, President Reagan had announced in his State of the Union address that NASA would build a space station and invite other countries to join.  Congress agreed, authorizing the program in the FY1985 Act, but it also wanted to know where the space shuttle and this new space station were taking the United States.

NASA sold the space station as “the next logical step” in human spaceflight.  Congress wanted to know “the next logical step to where?”

I was privileged to be executive director of NCOS and confess to being astonished that 30 years later we are still debating that question.

Congress asked for a report that looked out at the next 20 years, but also said that NCOS could not make any recommendations about the space shuttle or space station.  They were “givens” and since they would consume many of those 20 years, we got permission to extend our time frame to 50 years – to the year 2035.

Former NASA Administrator Tom Paine was our chairman.  Paine was a true visionary whose zeal for human exploration of Mars was well known.  Thus it was no surprise that humans on Mars was the long term goal expounded by the NCOS report.

But it was much more than that.  Congress asked not only about human spaceflight, but all of civilian space, including activities by both the public and private sectors.  “Commercial space” was the talk of the town back then, too.

Paine met with key members of Congress who agreed that we should make bold recommendations, and bold they were.  Our 15 member panel included astronauts Neil Armstrong and Kathy Sullivan (now head of NOAA), scientists Laurel Wilkening (our vice-chair) and George Field, commercialization guru Gerry O’Neill, and other exceptional individuals with broad expertise including Luis Alvarez, Chuck Yeager, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and Gen. Bernard Schriever.

Our overarching recommendation was to open the inner solar system for science, exploration and development.

Human spaceflight was a big part of it, with a return to Moon by 2005, landing on Mars by 2015 and establishing a base there by 2035.  The key was establishing a permanent inner solar system transportation system – a “Highway to Space” and a “Bridge Between Worlds.”   We wanted to establish infrastructure, as boring as that sounds, to avoid another dead-end effort like Apollo.  Involving international and commercial partners was a sine qua non.

So what happened?  The Challenger tragedy occurred mid-way through our deliberations and that certainly had an effect.  Our report was formally released in July 1986, six months after Challenger, when the appetite for bold recommendations about the future of the space program was at a low point.  Commercial space ventures that planned to use the space shuttle fell by the wayside (although the accident opened the door to commercial space launch services).   

More important than Challenger, in my view, however, is that it took 25 years to build the space station instead of 10 and it cost between $60-100 billion (depending on how one does the math) instead of $8 billion.  Whatever the merits of the program now that it is finally built, it was an impediment to moving beyond.

Many “future of space” reports have been written between 1986 and today, including the excellent NRC “Pathways report” from last year.  But they are just reports.   It is time to take action.

NASA is developing interesting ideas in its “Evolvable Mars Campaign.”   It is heartwarming, in fact, to see so many similarities between what is described there and what we recommended in the NCOS report – good ideas may languish for decades, but sooner or later they resurface.  NASA has rediscovered the word “pioneering,” too.  The title of our report was Pioneering the Space Frontier.  While some object to the use of that term these days because it is old fashioned or has unpleasant connotations, we meant it in the most positive context and I believe NASA does, too.

Will NASA’s newest plans languish as well, or are we finally ready to move out on the next phase of human exploration?  Can we avoid diversions like the Asteroid Redirect Mission?  Will Congress sustain the level of funding it provided for NASA in FY2015 -- $549 million more than the President requested?  Is that enough to make real progress?  The “Journey to Mars” hype associated with the Orion test last month seems to have been effective in educating the public that NASA has not, in fact, gone out of business, but won’t the public wonder what happened when this year and next year and the year after that pass with no more Orion flights?

The aspiration of landing people on Mars enunciated by NCOS and so many groups before and after is the one goal on which there is widespread consensus.  The problem is agreeing on the steps in between.   Perhaps this will be the year that debate ends.  It wasn’t that long ago that Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill and in the White House agreed on the path forward – the Constellation program.   This is not an appeal to restore that particular program (which was too focused on the Moon in my view), but it did demonstrate that political consensus is possible.   If Congress can continue to find the funds, and if Congress and the White House can agree on the steps, perhaps the first humans will land on Mars by the end of the NCOS timeframe in 2035, at least, and begin establishing a permanent presence to enable science, exploration and development as we envisioned so long ago.

Some may think my views are too government-centric.  I wholeheartedly support the private sector charting its own path to the stars, but rash efforts – by anyone – that unnecessarily risk lives would prove a setback to effective human exploration of Mars.  It would be extremely unfortunate if the first human trip to Mars was the last because of public backlash.