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

20 Republican former U.S. attorneys endorse Biden, call Trump "a threat to the rule of law"

Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Twenty Republican former U.S. Attorneys on Tuesday endorsed Joe Biden while saying that "President Trump's leadership is a threat to rule of law" in the U.S., the Washington Post reports.

What they're saying: In the letter, the former prosecutors criticize Trump's use of the Department of Justice, saying the president expects the DOJ to "to serve his personal and political interests."

  • "He has politicized the Justice Department, dictating its priorities along political lines and breaking down the barrier that prior administrations had maintained between political and prosecutorial decision-making," the letter says.
Updated 40 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Politics: Axios-Ipsos poll: Federal response has only gotten worse — The swing states where the pandemic is raging.
  2. Health: The coronavirus is starting to crush some hospitals — 13 states set single-day case records last week.
  3. Business: Winter coronavirus threat spurs new surge of startup activity.
  4. Media: Pandemic causes cable and satellite TV providers to lose the most subscribers ever.
  5. States: Nearly two dozen Minnesota COVID cases traced to 3 Trump campaign events.
  6. World: Unrest in Italy as restrictions grow across Europe.

Ted Cruz defends GOP's expected return to prioritizing national debt

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told "Axios on HBO" on Monday that he wishes reining in the national debt was a higher priority for President Trump.

Why it matters: Trump pledged during the 2016 campaign to reduce the national debt and eliminate it entirely within eight years, though he also deemed himself "the king of debt" and said there were some priorities that required spending. In the fiscal year that ended in September, the deficit reached a record $3.1 trillion.