Jul 20, 2019 - Science

What's in a moonshot

Illustration of an astronaut badge depicting the Sun, Moon and Earth in a semi-eclipse state, the words "IN SEARCH OF TRUTH" are on the badge.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The last geopolitical race to space seemed existential, set against the nerve-rattling competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The outcome was the moonshot — the astonishing launch of two humans onto the nearest body in space.

Driving the news: This time, the show of scientific and engineering muscle is the same, as the U.S., India, China and a host of privateers try to establish the first perch on the Moon. But it seems reasonable to ask whether the aim — the Moon — sets the sights of the contest too low.

The big question: Is returning to the Moon a half-century after Apollo 11 really a moonshot? Or should the Moon be at most a silent sideshow, and the forefront of the new quest be Mars — or, as an uber-ambitious moonshot, even Titan, one of Saturn's moons?

The first thing to know is that putting people on the Moon has no concrete strategic value — its geostrategic stature is all in our minds: "For the next 20 or 30 years the Moon is just a geopolitical status symbol," said Nicholas Wright, a U.K.-based analyst.

But if you happen to be space-obsessed, the Moon is the low-hanging fruit.

  • Contestants are making a big deal out of the Moon because, even with six decades of experience, it will take five years — at least for the U.S. — to get humans back there.
  • But if a Moon landing takes more than 5 or so years to accomplish, the public support and billions required for it could wane or even dry up, leaving NASA stranded.

Mars is the next target: NASA first plans to send humans to the planet in the early 2030s. SpaceX is talking about putting a crew in Mars orbit by 2024, but experts are highly skeptical.

  • Robert Zubrin, an aerospace engineer and Mars evangelist, says a reasonable aim is somewhere in the middle — around a decade.
  • Technically speaking, Zubrin tells Axios, the U.S. is currently better positioned to put humans on Mars than it was in 1961 to put a crew on the Moon.
  • "The proper moonshot for our time should be sending humans to Mars within a decade," Zubrin tells Axios.

What's next — in a really futuristic sense, according to Amanda Hendrix, a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, is contemplating something far more ambitious: Titan.

In 2005, the EU landed a probe called Huygens on Titan — and NASA is planning to send a drone there in 2026. Both Hendrix and Zubrin said we are at least a half-century from putting humans on it.

  • Zubrin advocates aiming there in our stretch-thinking because it has helium-3 and other materials needed to support life and technological civilization.
  • He says, "Helium-3 is the ideal fuel for fusion reactors and fusion rockets, making available nearly infinite energy for an expanding civilization and enabling spacecraft with the ability to achieve our next moonshot after Titan — the reach for the stars."

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