After Tuesday night's State of the Union address, most Americans know two things about Scott Kelly. First, he's going to space for a year, and second, President Obama wants him to "Instagram it."
Curiously, Obama didn't mention a more impressive fact: Scott will spend longer in orbit than any other American ever has. (In the mid-1990s, a Russian cosmonaut set the record by living for 437 consecutive days in the Mir space station.) The president only briefly flicked at the purpose of Scott's mission: to provide NASA with data on how humans react to the rigors of long-term spaceflight. The hope is that the information will one day help Americans reach Mars.
Obama has never displayed much passion for spaceflight, especially the big, government-funded missions that once dominated the field. In 2010, he cancelled President George W. Bush's Constellation program, which would have returned Americans to the moon and established a base there. For the same cost-related reasons, Obama has been reluctant to embrace Mars exploration. A National Research Council report last summer warned that a Mars mission could cost "two to four times" as much as the $150 billion International Space Station.
Yet neither has Obama entirely abandoned hope of planting a U.S. flag on the Red Planet. As with many of his other programs, he's merely sought a more pragmatic, cost-effective means of getting there. Rather than pouring resources into a single, over-ambitious effort with scant chances of success, NASA has begun pushing smaller initiatives that if successful, should generate the very knowledge and technologies that will one day be key to reaching Mars.
In the State of the Union, for instance, Obama also mentioned the recent launch of the Orion space capsule -- the first manned U.S. spacecraft since Apollo designed to leave Earth orbit. Arguably, even this program is overpriced and unnecessary at a time when private space companies like SpaceX are developing their own rockets and spacecraft. But it satisfies Congressional supporters who might otherwise gut NASA's support for the private space industry. Most importantly, Orion gives NASA a chance to maintain and refine its world- leading expertise in launching and controlling missions.
Far less controversial, but arguably more important for Mars exploration, is Kelly's planned year-long sojourn on the International Space Station. The most conservative estimates suggest flying to Mars would take roughly three years. Could humans handle it? At the moment, the data set is surprisingly small. Only four people have spent a consecutive year in space, all of whom were Russian, the last doing so in the 1990s. Meanwhile, even shorter missions continue to turn up new physiological problems. In just the last five years, for example, scientists have learned that impaired vision and depressed immunity become problems on flights of six months or less.
Scott Kelly will be just the first of several long-duration astronauts who should help scientists understand how those problems and others play out over a greater length of time (and whether they can be mitigated). That kind of knowledge will be crucial to the designs of future spacecraft. Space enthusiasts might complain that this all represents small beer. But in the absence of wide Congressional support and unlimited funds, it's a smart way to keep U.S. space exploration moving in the right direction: forward.