There are those who advocate for a direct target of Mars, some of them being the former astronauts who set foot on the Moon. As recently as this weekend, former astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, et al made it very clear that their eyes are fixed on a trip to Mars more than a return to the Moon. In the specifics I disagree, but in spirit I completely agree. We need to get our butts in gear and do the things that set us apart from all others, and not for pride or boasting, but for the advancement of all humanity. That is what America does!
The July 20, 1969 Moon landing was nothing more than a toe touch in the deep end of the pool. We have yet to dive into the far reaches of space, spending our time wading in the shallow waters of Low Earth Orbit with the Space Shuttle and ISS. We should not take such an avaunt guard approach to going further. There are far too many things we need to learn and perfect if we are to tackle the daunting, long range and long term goal of setting foot on Mars, which is something I truly long for in my lifetime.
Could we do it now? Of course. This is the United States of America, and we are fully capable of doing whatever we set our minds too, no matter how much we bicker amongst ourselves, as long as there is a solid understanding of what's involved and a serious commitment by those who fund it. It's not a question of "can", but a question of "should" we target Mars over the Moon. Logically, the Moon rests as our best proving ground for Mars technologies. There are things that you simply cannot duplicate on Earth, reduced gravity for more than just 30 seconds being chiefly among them, and what we cannot do is have Mars be a repeat of the Moon, where we came, we conquered and we left!
To be honest, by now we should have a Moon Base, but when the government runs the space industry, it fall upon politicians to set the direction, and politicians are well known for dropping the ball, having A.D.D. when other issues arise, or losing focus when something "more important" falls into their view. As far as I'm concerned, there is NOTHING more important than space exploration and development, because through the space industry, we have developed many key advances in other Earth based technologies.
Technologies like the CAT Scan, Cell Phones, Velcro (I have to include that one), all came from the space program. Granted, private industry took those initial technologies and developed them further, but that's standard practice, and also an economic boon. Has anyone considered the positive economic, educational, employment and technological advancement possibilities of a serious and sustained long term space industry fortification in the United States? The space industry needs to become the cornerstone of America, much like the auto-industry was in the early 20th century.
As I said, the Moon is our best testing ground and Mars isn't going anywhere. We could, if we really wanted too, put serious focus on the Moon and build a permanent habitat on the Lunar surface (or Lunar subsurface which would be a lot safer). And I strongly believe we could do this in 10 years or less if, and only if, we work with our international partners AND include the private space industry in the mix. A joint venture between government and private industry is the kind of partnership that would accomplish such a task in such a short period of time.
Learning to transport, construct, maintain and live in a reduced gravity and harsh environment is no trivial set of lessons to be learned, and very important to the success of any long term approach to Mars. What do you want to do, visit Mars for a month and then just leave the moment to the history books, or colonize Mars and offer your children and future generations the chance to consider Mars as another destination option on their vacation calendar? Do you want to leave something more for them, or just maintain the status quo?
The first step is the Moon, because even though "we've been there before", we didn't do enough the first time to consider it a solid accomplishment. We must learn and grow our capabilities so that any mission to Mars has adequate and knowledgeable support. However, understand this, SPACE IS NOT FOR THE WEAK HEARTED OR THE WEAK SPIRITED!!! Space is dangerous, risky, harsh and unkind. Space is dangerous, challenging and expensive (at first, but can and will get cheaper as private industry refines processes and production). Pansies need not apply. We are the United States of America, the best nation this world has ever known for producing people that take risks, understand the consequences, and also appreciate the rewards of their ventures.
There are times in history when humanity was faced with a choice; to remain in the cave or venture out for food; to remain nomadic, or congregate in groups for survival; to linger in the dark ages, or innovate and develop ourselves out of squalor. This is now another point in our existence when we have a choice to make. We can either withdraw our imagination, our drive and our vision, or we can embrace them and venture out, advancing humanity to its next level of existence among the stars. Which decision do you want to make and be remembered for?