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Obama Declares Humans Should Go To Mars By The 2030s


President Obama wants people to go to Mars, but first he's traveling to Pittsburgh. Tomorrow he's hosting a science and technology conference there, and space exploration is on the agenda. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has this look back at his eight years in office to see what he's done to put NASA on track to reach the Red Planet.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Six years ago President Obama spoke at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He repeated that goal yesterday in an op-ed published by CNN. John Logsdon read it. He's with the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. He says soon after taking office, President Obama commissioned a close look at the human space flight program.

JOHN LOGSDON: I think the first thing Mr. Obama did was get us off of a path that would not have been successful and tried to get us on a different path.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He killed President Bush's plan to return to the Moon and proposed spending years on a research and development program to find ways of going farther out. That was rejected by Congress. Lawmakers insisted that NASA build a big, new rocket and space capsule ASAP, hardware that would be needed for a Mars mission. Logsdon says what NASA's been doing ever since...

LOGSDON: Is a congressionally defined program as much as it is an Obama-defined program.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The upshot is we're probably closer to getting to Mars than we've ever been, but we're not that close.

MARCIA SMITH: Could we be even more close if other policies had been implemented - probably.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's space policy consultant Marcia Smith. She says the last eight years have been a mixed bag. On the one hand, President Obama extended the life of the International Space Station.

SMITH: There will be an extra 10 years at least of doing experiments on the space station, so that's a good thing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Since understanding long-duration space flight is key to going to Mars. But the president ditched the idea of the Moon as a stepping stone even though the Moon is where other nations, our potential partners, want to go. The administration has forged new partnerships with private companies which should start taking astronauts to space within the next couple of years.

SMITH: I think that's what will be the Obama legacy.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now, President Obama isn't the first president to lay out grand space goals that would happen after he leaves office. And Robert Zubrin says that's a problem. He's head of a nonprofit called The Mars Society.

ROBERT ZUBRIN: If we're going to get to Mars, someone has to take responsibility to make it happen during their own time.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's why he hopes the next president will commit to getting to Mars by the end of a second term. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nell Greenfieldboyce is a NPR science correspondent.