Mars is an extremely popular destination right now. Putting people on the Red Planet has been the big goal for NASA since 2010, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has made it very clear that his company is going to try to start a Martian colony as early as 2024. Mars One has managed to find hundreds of hopefuls who say they are willing to live out their last remaining days on Mars. Even Buzz Aldrin is encouraging us to get our asses there.
A Martian colony is going to be more complicated than people realize
But a Martian colony is going to be more complicated than people realize. We still haven’t invented many of the technologies needed to keep people alive — both during the journey to Mars and when we get there. Some tech has already been created, but we don’t know how it’ll hold up in space or even on another planet. That’s why we need to shift our gaze from Mars to a much closer neighbor: the Moon.
Enthusiasts and industry employees have been debating the merits of a return to the Moon versus a Mars mission ever since President Obama set NASA's space policy six years ago. During a 2010 speech, Obama directed NASA to send humans to an asteroid first and then send them to Mars. But he also argued we shouldn't go back to the Moon, because "we've been there before." That small statement squashed any chances of a Moon return during Obama's tenure. It also doesn't make a lot of sense.
A return to the Moon would do great things for the space community and for our government's space agency. First, a Moon mission would probably spark more collaboration with our international and commercial partners. Roscosmos and the European Space Agency both aim to set up a lunar colony, and the two agencies would likely be eager to lend expertise, personnel, and hardware to NASA. America's burgeoning private space industry could also get involved, by incorporating their rockets and hardware into a lunar trip. And both the commercial industry and the rest of the world would benefit from NASA's leadership.
It's going to take an incredible amount of money and discipline for a Mars mission to work — two things that even NASA may lack. Our international partners are uninterested in sending people to Mars. These agencies don’t have the money or the resources to make the complex technology needed for it, either. The European Space Agency has an annual budget between $5 billion and $6 billion, which is a quarter the size of NASA’s (about $19 billion). Russia's Space Agency matches NASA in funding, but the agency has suffered from corruption and budget cuts. That means these agencies can’t help NASA on Mars the way they might on the Moon. As for the private space industry, it’s mostly too young to provide substantial technologies that will actually help get NASA to Mars.
A Moon mission is a logical stepping stone to Mars
A Moon mission is a logical stepping stone to Mars. It can teach us about interplanetary living, just as the International Space Station has taught us about life in space. We've learned a ton from the ISS, like how to keep people alive in space, and what the absence of gravity does to the human body. A mission to the Moon opens opportunities for learning the kinds of things we’d need to survive on Mars — for instance, how to create a place to live on the surface of a whole other planet. That’s not all: both the Moon and Mars have a lot of dust, which can muck up hardware. So testing out space habitats on the dusty ol’ Moon, for instance, will help us prepare for dust on Mars.
Plus, the Moon's resources and position in space provide some added benefits. First, it is much closer! This isn’t insubstantial — at less than 240,000 miles away from Earth, the Moon can be reached in days, instead of the six month-travel time it would take to get to Mars. But scientists also think there’s water at the Moon’s poles, which is the kind of thing that could be mined. That water could create propellant for long-term missions — including to Mars — which could launch from a body that has far less gravity than Earth. But perhaps the biggest strength of a Moon colony is how quickly NASA could pull it off. Studies have suggested that a crewed mission to the lunar surface could be done with existing rockets, such as the Falcon 9 or the Atlas and Delta rockets from United Launch Alliance, at a relatively low cost.
People are more enthusiastic about space travel than ever before
That's important since people are more enthusiastic about space travel than ever before. SpaceX's launches and landings dominate the internet, and people turn out in droves for NASA's latest scientific announcements. Why not capitalize on that enthusiasm now? NASA has been in a weird stasis since the cancelation of the Shuttle program in 2011, relying on Russia to transport its astronauts. It needs a big project, sooner rather than later, to remind the world of what can be accomplished in space.
Fortunately, a return to the Moon is more likely if the attitude in Congress is any indication. At the recent hearings of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, representatives have been very critical of NASA's Mars initiative, attacking the Mars plan on both clarity and cost. Getting to Mars is likely to take hundreds of billions of dollars, and NASA’s current budget just isn’t going to cut it.
Perhaps the biggest gauge of how Congress feels came last month. A draft of a new appropriations bill for NASA would completely defund the agency’s unpopular asteroid redirect mission, which involves grabbing a boulder off an asteroid and bringing it into lunar orbit. "Instead, NASA is encouraged to develop plans to return to the Moon to test capabilities that will be needed for Mars, including habitation modules, lunar prospecting, and landing and ascent vehicles," the bill states. With a new president about to take office, a Moon effort has a much better chance of happening than in the past few years.
I have no doubt that we'll reach Mars someday, and I'm even optimistic that it will happen in my lifetime. But why not take the path to Mars that makes the most sense? A mission to the Moon would help us get to the Red Planet, as well as provide an exciting short-term human mission that people can be excited about.