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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."

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Updated 34 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: Concerns grow over CDC's isolation guidelines — Experts warn of more COVID-19 variants after Omicron.
  2. Vaccines: America's vaccination drive runs out of gas — Puerto Rico expands booster shot requirements.
  3. Politics: Joint Chiefs chair Gen. Mark Milley tests positive for COVID-19 — Vivek Murthy calls SCOTUS vaccine mandate block "a setback for public health."
  4. Economy: Report: World's 10 richest men doubled wealth during pandemicAmerica's labor shortage is bigger than the pandemic.
  5. States: America struggles to keep schools open — Youngkin ends mandates for masks in schools and COVID vaccinations for state workers.
  6. World: Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — French parliament passes COVID vaccine passport legislation.
  7. Variant tracker

Joint Chiefs chair Gen. Mark Milley tests positive for COVID-19

Photo: Olivier Douliery - Pool/Getty Images

Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday.

State of play: Joint Staff spokesperson Col. Dave Butler said in a statement that Milley — who is fully vaccinated and has received a booster shot — is experiencing "very minor symptoms" and is "working remotely and isolating himself."

Momentum builds to ban lawmakers from trading stocks

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Some progressive Democrats and MAGA Republicans are uniting on a proposal to ban sitting lawmakers from trading individual stocks, although it's unlikely that leadership will bring the bill up for a vote.

Why it matters: Members of Congress have great power to move stock prices, and great financial incentives to do so.