Last week, Astronaut Scott Kelly returned from an almost one-year mission to test the effects of space travel on the human body. Kelly's experiment directly contributes to our understanding of the challenges NASA must overcome to send astronauts to deep-space destinations like Mars. And one of our best opportunities to go there is right around the corner.

Seventeen years from now, Earth and Mars will be aligned for what could be the most significant and inspirational journey in human history.

A mission such as this — the first human space flight to another planet in our solar system — requires careful planning and persistence of purpose. So what is needed to get there from where we are today?

This is not merely a science fiction movie starring Matt Damon. This is a goal that is within the reach of NASA's technological capability. NASA and American industry are already building the most critical elements for journeys to deep space, the Orion crew vehicle and Space Launch System rocket. With those systems ready for missions within the next five years, NASA can begin taking critical steps to prepare for that rare planetary alignment in 2033.

If we launch humans from the Earth to the Red Planet in 2033, it would only take a year-and-a-half round trip instead of the normal journey of two or three years. A shorter mission like this greatly improves the likelihood of success, as our astronauts would not need to spend as much time exposed to solar flares, cosmic radiation, or the effects of zero gravity on the human body. A shorter duration mission also means less possibility of a mechanical or life-support problem.

The Space Station is also becoming a technology incubator for several commercial products and ventures. The technology spinoffs from America's space program have significantly added to our economy and improved our way of life — from the microchips in our computers, to lightweight metal alloys used in our cars, touchpad screens on our iPads and GPS devices.For the past 15 years, astronauts have been preparing for deep space exploration onboard the International Space Station. Larger in size than a football field, the Space Station is considered by many to be the greatest engineering achievement in the history of the world. And it has served as the laboratory in which Kelly and other astronauts have spent long stretches in space, providing valuable information for longer human missions.

Congress — on a bipartisan basis — has shown its support for NASA's deep space exploration endeavors. Year after year, Congress has provided the necessary funding for Orion and the Space Launch System. We believe it is a priority for America to remain a pioneering nation on the frontier of space. We have committed to maintaining American leadership in space now and in the future, across presidential administrations and Congresses.

A Mars journey requires a long-term plan from NASA. Just as the Apollo missions in the 1960s required Mercury and Gemini precursor missions, we need a mission statement from NASA laying out when we are going to Mars, what technologies and research we need to get there, and how we as a nation will get it done.

We need a detailed plan to put an end to the uncertainties that could delay a mission to Mars. NASA and American space companies must focus their engineering and scientific expertise on the great task before them. Americans will feel a renewed sense of pride and curiosity about their space program. And they will be able to celebrate another historic first as we plant the American flag on Mars.

This could be a turning point in the history of our great space-faring nation. We can do this.

Rep. Lamar Smith is a Republican from Texas. Rep. Ed Perlmutter is a Democrat from Colorado. Smith is chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Perlmutter is a member of the committee.

The Denver Post