I wasn't sure the crude NASA feedback website reliably submitted my comments, so here they are again. These are my comments on
Exploration Beyond LEO: Process and Progress (pdf, 144k)
We lack the political and public will to see through an effort of the complexity and cost of the Apollo program. But it's possible a direct and urgent Mars mission could capture the public's imagination sufficiently.
A manned landing on Mars, with a stay sufficient to do significant research, as well as engaging in communications (blog posts, twitter, email, etc) with individuals of the public and the public as a group, is the best way to ensure a) that we can maintain interest long enough to get there and b) ensure a lasting legacy of public support for HSF.
Furthermore, such an effort should endeavor to do two things: re-use as much existing technology and expertise as possible, and engage the private sector in competition for the development of the technology and hardware.
Th re-use of existing technology is embodied by efforts such as Jupiter Direct. It could conceivably allow the current Shuttle program to continue operating without adversely affecting new development efforts, due to the degree to which hardware is shared between the two programs. It saves substantially on development costs, and shortens development cycles, which is critical (politicians and the public must see constant progress in the form of launches, or they will get bored).
NASA should sponsor competitions among private industry (as the X-prize foundation does) to develop technologies, as outlined in Zubrin's _The Case for Mars_. NASA can serve as evaluator and integrator. This will speed development and lower development costs, while prompting private industry to employ people.
We've already been to the Moon; we know how to do that, but we're rapidly forgetting it, because all of the scientists and engineers of the era are disappearing. We need to leverage what they know *now*, and use it to develop a manned Mars program, the only thing that can capture the public's imagination in the way necessary to ensure the human space program's future.
Only after a Mars effort is well underway should we turn our attention to the next steps, including a permanent base on the Moon (for example, a far side telescope).