Elsewhere in the solar system, a NASA rover is on its way to Mars. It carries, among other things, several pieces of spacesuit material. Designers want to see how the samples fare in the planet’s dusty, radiation-laden environment—the sturdy fabrics of the suit’s exterior, the cut-resistant fibers of its gloves, the shatterproof plastic of the bubble helmet that might someday reflect the soft light of a Martian sunset. When future astronauts arrive on the surface, the spacesuit designers back on Earth must be sure that they’re appropriately dressed for the occasion.
The rover lands in February. Those future Mars explorers—who knows?
Men managed to make it to the moon 50 years ago, and for years now, setting foot on the red planet has felt like the clearest next step. Someday, an astronaut might be hunched over a desk, a wastebasket full of crumpled paper nearby, trying to come up with the right words—something as good as Neil Armstrong’s famous line—before her spaceship lands on Mars. That landing, NASA has said, would come in 2033.
An Armstrong moment on Mars has always been far from guaranteed, but now, in this particular year of American history, that future feels further away than ever. The coronavirus pandemic has diminished all sorts of human endeavors, including space exploration, one of our dreamiest ambitions. “No virus is stronger than the human desire to explore,” the NASA administrator declared in April, when coronavirus cases were rising fast and the country’s response was already stumbling. Even in times like these, the leader of the only organization to send humans to another world has to believe that’s still possible, and on some level, he’s right; COVID-19 will not, in the end, stop humankind from someday reaching Mars. On the timelines required for space travel, a year, or more, of slowed activity counts as a small setback. But the exigencies of the pandemic still could influence America’s ambitions in the cosmos: The national impulse to reach for other worlds might be eroding.
Like many workplaces this spring, NASA sent its most of its employees home and hunkered down. While the agency put some projects on hold, it pressed ahead with others. A pair of NASA astronauts flew to the International Space Station and back in a SpaceX capsule. The Mars rover Perseverance launched on its months-long journey into deep space. These efforts, years in the making, were nearing their finish lines as the coronavirus spread across the country, and NASA deemed them “mission essential.”
Both launches, especially the historic flight of Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken—whom NASA affectionately advertised as “space dads”—for a moment drew Americans’ attention from a seemingly ceaseless current of tragedies, including stories of infected Americans dying in ambulances and footage of Black Americans dying at the hands of white police officers. Some people were delighted, grateful for a spot of good news. Others were surprised, even aghast, at the timing. You’re doing this now? Really?
The critique echoed the feelings of many Americans during NASA’s most famous era: the race to the moon. In the late 1960s, the Apollo program unfolded against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, civil-rights demonstrations, and political assassinations. Polling from that time shows that the majority of Americans didn’t think the Apollo program was worth the cost. The exception was a survey conducted on the day of the moon landing, when the mood around the world was euphoric. Even in that moment, though, the problems of our planet firmly grounded the minds of some Americans—Gil Scott-Heron captured this most famously, in his 1970 poem: “I think I’ll send these doctor bills / Airmail special / To whitey on the moon.”
Still, space historians told me, in those halcyon days of human spaceflight, even with all its turmoil, the country functioned on a basic level. In the late 1960s, a different virus known as the “Hong Kong flu” killed roughly 100,000 Americans, but did not destabilize the country the way COVID-19 has. Throughout the decade, the national economy was thriving, and an American passport meant something. Though the Vietnam War roiled American politics, the active front was in a distant country. The war’s toll was heavy—an estimated 47,434 Americans died in battle between 1964 and 1975—but in six months, COVID-19 deaths in the United States outnumbered American casualties in the past five wars combined.
Even before the pandemic paralyzed the country, the prospect of Americans making it to Mars in the 2030s was far-fetched. In February 2019, a year before the first American died from COVID-19, an independent research group published a report about NASA’s Mars dreams. At Congress’s request, NASA had asked the group to evaluate whether the agency could launch astronauts to the red planet in 2033, not to land, but to loop around and come back, as the early Apollo missions did. The conclusion was bleak; given NASA’s current plans, an orbital mission would be “infeasible under all budget scenarios and technology development and testing schedules.” The researchers found that astronauts might be able to launch in 2037, without any schedule delays or budget shortfalls, but believed 2039 would be more realistic, which would push a landing to the 2040s. (The institute that conducted the report has not done any analysis on the pandemic’s potential impact on these ambitious plans.)
NASA is not humankind’s only ticket to other worlds. Private companies are developing their own dreams, and their own rockets. As the pandemic set in, NASA paused some work on a rocket designed to send astronauts to the moon, but Elon Musk’s SpaceX continued testing prototypes for its Mars spaceship. SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin have received sizable contracts from NASA to do their work, and Musk often says that SpaceX wouldn’t be what it is today without NASA’s support, financial and otherwise. But his private company could end up leapfrogging the storied space agency on infrastructure that could send people to Mars. (Musk said recently he believes SpaceX could deliver people to the red planet in the 2020s, but the billionaire entrepreneur is, famously and by his own admission, overly optimistic about schedules, so take that with a grain of Mars dust.) SpaceX might not go it alone in the end, deciding to join forces with NASA, but the world’s top space agency would not be at the controls.
In the business of spaceflight, delays are virtually unavoidable, even under the best of circumstances. A pandemic, then, might slow down NASA’s long-term plans—but something would have, no matter what. Donald Rapp, who worked on Mars programs as a chief technologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory before he retired, doesn’t think the effects of the pandemic today will be disruptive enough to scuttle any future mission to Mars. The 2030s, in his view, is an overly optimistic goal, and he doesn’t expect astronauts to reach the red planet until potentially the 2060s. Forty years from now, Americans will (fingers crossed!) have a COVID-19 vaccine, and perhaps for other coronaviruses that have yet to emerge.
But the work for a Mars journey in the 2030s must be done in this decade, and for NASA, such an ambitious mission might be a tougher sell now, both to the American public and to lawmakers. Months before the virus struck, the Trump administration was already struggling to persuade Congress to fund its top priority—sending Americans back to the moon in the next four years, with an eye toward Mars after that. To reach that goal, NASA must either make cuts to existing programs or receive billions of dollars in additional funding. “If you try to sell ‘humans to Mars’ this year, next year, or even the next year, I think you’ve got a tough road to travel,” Rapp told me.
Most presidents in modern history give their version of John F. Kennedy’s moon speech—a grand pitch for America’s future in space under their administration—several months after they take office, once they have tackled their most pressing campaign promises and early priorities. Donald Trump has already pushed to accelerate the timeline for a mission to the moon, telling NASA to hurry up and make it there by 2024 instead of 2028. If he wins a second term, he could use space exploration to once again signal his ideas of American greatness. If Joe Biden is elected, space historians predict that he might delay an agenda-setting speech about the country’s future in space, in order to show that he is more concerned with matters at home.
At the same time, the next president might do well to express some enthusiasm about the country’s years ahead in space. Since its inception, NASA has been a tool of American foreign policy, first, to display Cold War dominance, and then, in working together with other space agencies, to model global leadership and to project “a positive image of American power and American democracy abroad,” as John Krige, a history professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, writes. A government that can maintain an awe-inspiring space program signals to the rest of the world that it’s running an advanced nation with a bright future.
After all, if a country can focus its time and attention on something as dramatic as sending people to another planet, then it must be doing well. “The job of the next president, presuming it’s Joe Biden, is to turn the phrase ‘Make America Great’ into reality and try to regain the world reputation and leadership role that once belonged to the United States,” John Logsdon, a space historian and a former director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, told me. “And backing off enterprises like space exploration is not the way you do that.”
But how might the public react to enthusiastic rhetoric about other worlds in 2021, when, for many of us, this world still clearly demands extra attention? If the national unity of the Apollo era is mostly a myth, at some point NASA might have to face down the reality that Americans aren’t so space-happy. The agency runs extensive and often brilliant public-relations campaigns for its missions: recruiting schoolchildren to name space rovers, imbuing spacecraft with lovable personalities, and pitching its astronauts—both space dads and others—as talented yet relatable figures. Even so, Logsdon, the space historian, already sees the national impulse that fueled Apollo, that believed in the idea of America reaching deeper into the cosmos, weakening. “That impulse is certainly less widespread than it was 50 years ago,” he said.
As government agencies go, NASA is looked upon fondly. Although some Americans blanch at spending more than $20 billion on NASA each year, a 2019 poll found that a plurality of participants, when told that the agency’s annual funding accounts for half a percent of the national budget, say that they'd prefer the government spend a greater portion of its resources on NASA. But just 18 percent think going to Mars should be a top priority, the survey found, and even fewer think NASA should focus on sending astronauts back to the moon. Instead, survey participants thought NASA should focus more on climate-change research and the study of asteroids that could strike Earth, two areas that receive far less funding than human spaceflight. “If it was up to the public to set space priorities, the NASA budget would be flipped,” Teasel Muir-Harmony, a historian and a curator of Apollo artifacts at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, told me.
The agency will have a chance to see, in February, how eager Americans are to think about a place that’s not this one. Perseverance will land on Mars and start to dig for evidence of fossilized alien life. Perhaps people will latch on to this distant robot as a distraction from the strain of the pandemic; perhaps the concerns of Mars will seem extra hard to care about. What might the country look like then? How many more Americans will have died?
The swatches of spacesuit material that Perseverance carries are, in a way, an emblem of American optimism. They posit that one day these fabrics might be wrapped around the bodies of astronauts, sheltering them from an environment they weren’t made to survive. These Armstrongs and Aldrins might walk up to Perseverance, its batteries long dead, and see, next to one of its wheels, beneath a blanket of rust-colored dust, a plaque of a snake coiled around a rod. A symbol of medicine, added as a tribute to the brave people who tended to others during the 2020 pandemic, years before—in this future, a distant memory.