The Moon vs. Mars: Why NASA should set its sights on a manned lunar mission next

[Editor's Note: March kicks off a season of big-time showdowns, grudge matches and maybe a few team-ups. Infamous as the month when Brutus betrayed Caesar, March will get even more epic because Batman will take on Superman on the big screen, Daredevil will get company in Hell's Kitchen in the form of The Punisher on Netflix, and The Flash shall race on over to CBS to meet Supergirl. And, of course, just a few weeks after this kickoff, we'll see a breakdown in the friendship between Captain America and Iron Man in Marvel's Civil War movie. Because we love seeing a good battle between titans, we've dedicated March to versus. Over the next four weeks, check this space for stories on title fights in superhero stories, horror, science and more!]

NASA currently has its ambitious bullseye aimed at Mars — but should the space agency shift the target a bit closer to home first?

Putting humans on Mars has been the stuff of science fiction for decades, and after humanity reached the moon in the late 1960s, it seemed we were just a few decades away from expanding our footprint further into the stars. But, with the Space Race essentially won, public interest, excitement and (arguably most importantly) funding started to wane in the intervening decades — and we’re still no closer to Mars than we were in the 1960s.

If anything, we might even be further away now. Hey, at least when Neil Armstrong was kicking around on the lunar surface he had knocked 239,000 miles off the 140 million (give or take a few million) mile journey to Mars. Remember: once the Apollo missions came to an end in 1975, it took 40 years for another crew-designed spacecraft (the unmanned test of NASA’s Orion spacecraft in 2014) to even travel to the far edge of Earth orbit. That’s a long time, especially considering that all the pieces of equipment that did it in the Apollo missions are literal antiques now.

We went to the moon 40+ years ago on the back of American ingenuity, iron wills and (mostly) good fortune — but it’s easy to forget that it’s been a long time since humans have actually been that far away from home. With the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel saying NASA’s current proposal to reach Mars could be unsafe and untenable (largely due to limited funding that makes the project unfeasible in its current form), and Congress openly questioning the overall direction of the space agency on a grand scale, it begs the question: Should we reclaim the moon before engaging in a much riskier mission to plant a flag on Mars?

A moon mission could work and be affordable



A NASA-funded study from 2015 found that commercial partnerships with companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin could significantly cut costs for a return to the moon — from a projected $100 billion to around $10-20 billion. Dubbed the “Economic Assessment and Systems Analysis of an Evolvable Lunar Architecture That Leverages Commercial Space Capabilities and Public-Private-Partnerships,” the proposal put forth a phased partnership similar to what NASA is doing to develop U.S. crew capsules from the International Space Station (ISS). But, at least to this point, NASA has made no moves to actually adopt many of the recommendations from the report.

Tom Moser, a former NASA official who served on the independent review team for the study, told Blastr he believes NASA’s current path is “greatly flawed” — but a return to the Moon has the potential to right the ship. With no clear direction, Moser said he believes NASA’s current Mars plan will likely be scrapped or retooled in the future, a move that could leave the space agency with even less direction than it has now.

“NASA’s current path ... is to develop a rocket and as spacecraft to go somewhere someday, with no significant technology development. A mission with a clear objective, a schedule and a commitment is necessary to be successful," Moser said. "I believe the current ‘path’ is expensive, is perceived as a jobs program and will be terminated as part of future budgets, especially if there is a $100 billion mission identified. It also eliminates the U.S. from being the world leader in human space exploration.”

Instead of pushing all its chips in on Mars, Moser said he would like to see NASA consider the lunar partnership plan, noting it would be immediately feasible to get started thanks to a phased budgeting approach of less than $5 billion per year. Even more, Moser posited a return to the Moon would allow NASA to test and develop new technology while leveraging the advances of private space firms, all of which could eventually help us reach Mars safely in the future.

Jim Bell, a professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University who also serves as president of The Planetary Society, told Blastr he is encouraged by NASA’s ambition to push deeper into our solar system by using robots and eventual human orbit missions to lead to manned missions on Mars’ moons, then the Red Planet itself by the late 2030s (he participated in a study that said as much last year). But, within the next decade or so, he questioned why NASA wouldn’t use the Moon as a proving ground for the next generation of space explorers.

“I believe the focus for the near-term (next decade or so) should rightly be on the infrastructure to enable astronauts in the 2020s and 2030s to potentially visit a variety of destinations," Bell said. "It seems to me that the Moon should be a logical part of any new thrust for human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, but the details will depend on policies and funding levels that will be established by the next few Presidential administrations and congresses.”

Put simply: it’s right there. Use it.

The Moon is the safer, smarter bet


It seems almost silly to say, but one reason NASA is so keen on reaching Mars is almost certainly because the idea, itself, is a sexy one. Much as the Moon represented the nigh-unattainable cosmos in the 1950s and 1960s, that longing has largely shifted to Mars in the present day. But, like it or not, humanity is arguably just not equipped to mount such an ambitious mission at this point. Sobering, but true.

Much of the technology and research needed to do it just doesn’t exist, yet, and though NASA’s Orion craft might be our Cadillac to the stars in the future, we’re still a long way away from the cutting-edge ship Mark Watney and his gang of near-future explorers used to reach the Red Planet in The Martian. We’re so used to seeing these things in science fiction, however, that it’s getting harder and harder to reconcile fact with fiction. It’s been decades since 2001: A Space Odyssey blew us away with the Discovery One, but we’re nowhere close to turning something like that into reality. 

So, where’s the closest target to test out and develop that tech? Ding, ding, ding. The Moon. Studies posit that the Moon, with its reduced gravity, would be the perfect place for a spaceport/refueling station to the rest of our solar system. Beyond that, there are still a lot of things we can learn from our closest celestial neighbor with modern technology, with research tech that was unfathomable back in the Apollo days. Bell put it simply when asked if NASA should return to the Moon before setting off for Mars: “Absolutely!”

“There is still an enormous amount of scientific information to learn about the Moon -- and thus about the history of our own home planet -- by sending skilled astronauts back to study that world. The Apollo missions proved the value of well-selected sample return missions being led by carefully-trained off-planet field geologists. As well, in my opinion the Moon will absolutely be a proving ground for future technologies and procedures needed to work effectively in deep space, whether it be on the Moon, itself, on asteroids, on Mars, or its moons.  We should take advantage of this spectacular natural deep space laboratory that's right here in our own back yard.”

Looking in a more inspirational direction, Moser said a partnered approach to moon exploration (and even eventual colonization) could also help inspire fresh “creativity and imagination,” by using a mix of robots and human explorers. 

But what about the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM)?


You can’t talk about Mars without mentioning NASA’s stop-gap project the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), a robotic mission designed to visit a large near-Earth asteroid, collect a multi-ton boulder from its surface, and redirect it into a stable orbit around the Moon. It's no small task to be sure. Once the asteroid is in orbit, NASA wants to send astronauts to explore it and bring back samples in the 2020s. 

NASA has billed the project as a major component in its overall Mars strategy that will be used to develop new technology and gain spaceflight experience that will be invaluable in a manned Mars mission. But, not everyone agrees about that last point. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) called the project a “time-wasting distraction,” while some in the scientific community question exactly how much scientific information it will actually provide, since the main focus is on redirecting the asteroid, as opposed to thoroughly exploring it. Moser agrees with the dissenters, and didn’t mince words in regards to ARM, calling it a “stunt will no significant benefits, especially for getting to Mars or for serious human space exploration.”

Bell noted the spirit of the asteroid mission is a noble one, though the details of the project seem to have evolved since it was first announced. He said he does, however, see the potential scientific benefits and how that tech could scale out to an eventual Mars mission. Whether it takes the form of ARM, or a mission back to the moon, Bell said he hopes NASA will continue to take some incremental steps toward Mars and work across departments to reach that goal.

“ARM has some major components to it that are consistent with my personal hope to see major advances in infrastructure development that will allow us to go beyond low Earth orbit, regardless of the destination. I am not sure that the idea of bringing an asteroid or part of an asteroid back to lunar orbit was really what President Obama had in mind when he announced the goal several years ago of sending NASA astronauts to visit and study an asteroid. 

Regardless, after a bit of a rough start, the project has grown to demonstrate a remarkable willingness of the Human Exploration and Science sides of NASA to work closely together on projects of mutually beneficial interest. Nurturing that collaboration, whether or not ARM actually comes to pass or not, is -- in my opinion -- one of the keys to the success of any eventual mission to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.”

Be it ARM, or the moon, NASA needs something in the middle.

Another small step

It’s been 40 years since we left the safety of our planet and set foot on another piece of real estate. Like it or not, humanity may need to crawl, again, before trying to walk. Taking aim at Mars as the first major mission for Orion would be one heck of a marathon — which is asking a lot for a space agency that hasn't left orbit in (by that point) half a century.

When did the Moon lose its majesty and wonder? Spoiler alert: It didn’t. We just forgot how wondrous it could be, because we haven’t been there in so long. After becoming the sixth man to ever set foot on the lunar surface, Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell colorfully said as much in a profile in People Magazine circa 1974:

“From out there on the Moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a b*tch.’”

With the right focus, we can find that reverence once again — and there’s every chance it could be the lynchpin to helping us explore the rest of the solar system.