The moon is one step. Mars is the prize.
To ensure the greatest returns on the public's investment in space exploration, landing on the Moon shouldn't be an end in itself. Mars remains the most promising destination to establish a long-term human presence and to advance our scientific understanding of life elsewhere.
But landing on Mars, with an atmosphere that can burn up spacecraft on entry, is not the same as the smooth, airless ride of landing on the Moon. And living on a planet that is on average 140 million miles from Earth is certainly not the same as living on on a moon that is a mere (cosmically speaking) 240,000 mile trip.
Fortunately, the Moon provides an opportunity to test and refine the technology needed to reach the Red Planet — we just don't need to land there. Life support, long-distance operations and astronaut health can all be tested in the space around the Moon. NASA could establish a national infrastructure to bootstrap our way to Mars that also supports other countries and commercial companies in their efforts to reach the lunar surface.
The bottom line: NASA is about more than going to the Moon — science, technology and the search for life are all parts of space exploration. We must strategically use precious public funds to push the limits of human knowledge while paving the way for others to follow.
Other voices in the conversation:
- Debra Needham, planetary scientist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center: The Moon can help reveal our solar system's history
- Clive Neal, lunar scientist and engineering professor at Notre Dame: Lunar resources ready and waiting
- Georgiana Kramer, staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute: Lunar swirls hold valuable secrets