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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

CCP releases two jailed Canadians after Huawei CFO deal with DOJ

Photo: Sheldon Cooper/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Two Canadians imprisoned by the Chinese government for over 1,000 days have been released and are expected to arrive in Canada on Saturday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday.

Why it matters: Their release comes hours after Huawei Technologies CFO Meng Wanzhou reached a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice that resolves the criminal charges against her and could pave the way for her to return to China.

Updated 20 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Arizona GOP's private recount of 2020 election confirms Biden's win

Contractors working on behalf of the GOP examine and recount 2020 ballots at Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix in May. Photo: Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

In an odd coda to the 2020 election, private contractors conducting a GOP-commissioned recount in Arizona confirmed President Biden’s win in Maricopa County.

Why it matters: The unofficial, party-driven recount has been heavily covered on cable news as part of former President Trump's continued effort to sow doubt about the election result.

Del Rio bridge camp empty following Haitian migrant surge

A boy bathes himself in a jug of water inside a migrant camp at the U.S.-Mexico border on Sept. 21 in Del Rio, Texas. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

The last migrants camping under the Del Rio International Bridge, which connects Texas and Mexico, departed on Friday, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced during a White House press briefing.

Driving the news: Thousands of migrants, mostly from Haiti, had arrived to the makeshift camp after crossing the southern border seeking asylum. Roughly 1,800 migrants will now head to U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing centers.