Few things make a post-1950s President appear as visionary as talking about going to Mars. At one point or another, almost all Presidents seem to do it. On Oct. 11, Obama joined the chorus, promising a public-private partnership to send humans to the Red Planet by the 2030s. That’s stirring stuff–provided there’s anything to it. Which there may well be. Or not.
Let’s start with the public-private part, an ostensible sea change in the space program the President has been touting ever since private companies began making uncrewed cargo runs to the International Space Station in 2012. As early as next year, they will begin carrying astronauts too.
Private companies, however, have always been the space program’s manufacturing backbone. Even in its glory years throughout the ’60s and ’70s, NASA never built any of its spacecraft, instead contracting the work out across the aerospace industry. What was different then was that those contracts were essentially work made to order, like planning the house you want and hiring an architect to build it for you. Now it’s more like buying into a development: private companies build products on their own, then compete to sell them to NASA.
That does cut costs, which are always a challenge with space travel. But a portion of the multibillion-dollar contract NASA signed with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences for cargo runs to the space station included money for research and development, blurring the public-private divide.
Then there’s the deadline: “by the 2030s.” Across government, 15 years away is a safe target for ambitious programs that may or may not happen. It’s close enough that it suggests accountability but far enough that it’s possible to promise almost anything. Notice, too, that aiming merely for anytime in the 2030s allows for a large margin of error, especially when contrasted with President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 lunar challenge: the U.S. would have boots on the moon “before the end of this decade.” In other words: we get there by Dec. 31, 1969, or we fail. We didn’t fail.
Of course, the entire moon program spanned four presidencies and seven Congresses. They argued about funding and deadlines, and they faced significant setbacks.
The same holds true now. A presidential pledge to go to Mars is exciting, even if the timing is vague. But it’s not all Obama’s or the next President’s call. It will be up to the whole brawling, partisan, often dysfunctional lot in Washington to see it through. The exploration of a world–the red one–depends on it.
This appears in the October 24, 2016 issue of TIME.