The appeal of space travel has always been twofold. It is not merely about exploration; it's also about experience. Ever since the dawn of the Apollo program, NASA has done an admirable job of promoting the scientific excitement of space flight. Now it must do more to engage Americans directly. To fulfill the promise of the space age, everyone should have a chance to go into space.
It's a subtle but important distinction. Lots of documentaries talk about the daring, the dreaming, the inspiration of the moon shot... but when people get starry-eyed about how "we could go to the moon", they mean "we" as in anyone, not "we" as in highly skilled careerist astronauts.
This suggests the new attempt to recapture that spirit of the 60's, with a moon base and trip to Mars, will fail. The timetable is 16 years, not 6. The work is less unique and less revolutionary, but technically harder and longer. And what's more -- the public has had over thirty years of mainstream sci-fi to drum the idea into our collective consciousness.
Will people really tune in, day after day, during a 6-month trip to Mars, just to see the hatch on the lander open and watch a skilled pro step on the red soil? People know what to expect. They've seen this kind of thing before.
The big money, and big interest, is in getting ordinary people out there. Failing that, it might be worth revising my idea from last February, for an American Idol- style astronaut selection process. If people can't go into space, maybe identifying more with those who do will heighten interest. Lileks notes that the first person on Mars will probably be an American, and thus the most representative human (could be man or woman, black or white or Asian or Latino...) But putting someone on Mars selected by the viewers... that's democracy...