In July 1969, human beings set foot on another world for the first time ever when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin spent just under one earth-day on the surface of the Moon. Over the next three years, NASA conducted five more successful crewed Moon landings, with the last, Apollo 17, leaving the Moon in December 1972.
The Moon landings were a remarkable achievement for the United States, and for humanity as a whole. Apollo 11 traveled over 200,000 miles to land on the Moon just under fifty years since the first time humans flew 1,900 miles across the Atlantic and only eight years since the first human being entered space. What’s more, the landings were achieved less than seven years after President Kennedy announced before a crowd at Rice University in 1962 that the United States would go to the Moon by the end of the decade. However, the last Moon landing was almost fifty years ago. Since then, hundreds of people have gone to space, but no one has gone farther than low-Earth orbit. The fifty years between the first transatlantic flight and the first Moon landing saw unbelievable strife and social upheaval, yet unparalleled technological advancement. The same can be said of the fifty years since we last went farther than about a thousand miles from the Earth, so what, where, and when is our next great navigation milestone? The what and where are easy: Mars. The question of when, however, appears to be more challenging.
Currently, NASA plans to land humans on the Moon sometime in the current decade to prepare for a Mars landing in the future (though details about exactly when remain vague). The first crewed landing, Artemis III, will launch in 2025 at the earliest. Another mission, Artemis IV, will follow later to help build the Lunar Gateway, an internationally-coordinated space station that will orbit the Moon. These and other, later missions are meant to re-ignite scientific study of the Moon and prepare NASA for the logistical challenges of a Mars mission.
The Artemis landings will mark major landmarks in space exploration — Artemis III will include the first woman and the first person of color to land on the Moon. Entirely new technologies will be developed and deployed for the first time, and maybe (just maybe) a permanent human presence on another world will be established in the near future. But we can do better than this. If the United States truly wants to push the boundaries of space exploration, a Mars mission should be the number one priority in space after Artemis III.
Granted, getting to Mars is substantially more challenging than going to the Moon: astronauts will be spending well over a year (and, in some types of missions, nearly two or three years) millions of miles away from the Earth, as opposed to the week-or-so spent in space for Moon missions. Astronauts will need to survive on Mars for months on end, and NASA first intends to test habitation equipment in the comparatively easier environment of the Moon before committing to a years-long Mars voyage.
Still, NASA’s plan of incrementally building a presence on the Moon in order to prepare for a Mars mission far in the future will needlessly drain billions of dollars and years of work — especially because we already have a realistic chance of going to Mars now. In 1996, the physicist Robert Zubrin published the book, The Case for Mars, which demonstrated how humans could travel to Mars. They could harvest gasses from Mars’s atmosphere to obtain breathing air and generate rocket fuel for a return voyage – all with existing technology. Consider that for a moment: we have had the technology to go to Mars for twenty-six years, yet today, in 2022, there is only talk about how we may or may not be able to send people to the Moon in a few years.
This is not to say that we should not return to the Moon. For one, every single person who has set foot on the Moon has been a white man, and we should change that. There are also serious scientific gains to be made. The far side of the Moon, isolated from Earth’s cacophony of radio transmissions, would be the perfect place to build a radio observatory. Similarly, the lunar south pole provides some of the best sites in the solar system for infrared telescopes. Furthermore, because the Moon has no atmosphere, it is an excellent place for optical astronomy (whereas objects observed through Earth’s atmosphere are blurred due to a process called ‘seeing’). However, from a policy standpoint, our focus on the Moon as a “step” on the way to Mars is hindering our ability both to get to Mars and to benefit from the Moon.
Other actors understand what NASA does not. China has plans to land a crew on Mars in 2033. Their plan is audacious and requires relentless technical innovation – just like the Apollo program in the 1960s. Likewise, Elon Musk’s SpaceX plans to have a crewed mission to Mars by 2030 with its Starship rocket. These two programs, though extremely bold, have one key characteristic that NASA’s Artemis completely lacks: urgency. Artemis, in its current form, is the equivalent of driving your car around the block 100 times to prepare yourself and your car for a 40-mile trip – you would certainly prove your ability to drive, but you would waste quite a bit of time and get absolutely nowhere.
President Biden should follow the lead of President Kennedy by directing NASA to land a crew on Mars by 2030. NASA should create a separate program specifically dedicated to Mars travel, similar to how Apollo was dedicated to the Moon. Future Artemis missions should focus specifically on the scientific and exploratory gains to be made on the Moon instead of wasting time “practicing” for a Mars mission. In order to economize on rockets, funding, and brainpower, NASA should expand its already considerable collaboration with SpaceX by using efficient Starship rockets to send crews to Mars (NASA’s current plan for getting to Mars instead centers around the unbelievably expensive and wasteful Space Launch System).
The United States stunned the world by meeting its ambitious goal to reach the Moon by the end of the 1960s. In order to maintain its status as the leading power in space, and to keep pushing the boundaries of human exploration, America must give greater priority to reaching Mars in the next ten years. By renewing its commitment to space exploration, NASA can ensure a safer, better-understood, and more equitable future for humanity’s common heritage.
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