September 2016 Space Lounge

Moon or Mars - how logical is NASA’s next step?

The commercial space market is rapidly expanding into unknown territory as it embraces new opportunities such as deep space mining. But, as it does so, we might be wise to learn from historical precedents like that of the Dutch East India Company which was set up in 1602 after the Dutch government granted it a 21-year monopoly on the Dutch spice trade.

The yacht of the Rotterdam chamber of the Dutch East India Company greets a VoC ship near Hellevoetsluis’ by Jacob van Strij, 1790.
The yacht of the Rotterdam chamber of the Dutch East India Company greets a VoC ship near Hellevoetsluis’ by Jacob van Strij, 1790.
Harris Innes-Miller Harris Innes-Miller Montreal, Canada

When NASA flew the first men to the Moon between 1969 and 1972 it was for footprints and flags. There seems little doubt the Moon will be NASA’s next logical leap beyond low Earth orbit and, as the clock ticks on the termination of the International Space Station, now is the time to plan a return to the Moon. Allyson Reneau believes our new vision for the Moon must be to stay and learn to live in such an extreme environment. It will be testing ground for a multitude of technologies that will eventually be needed for deep space travel further into the Solar System.

On 20 July 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped onto the Moon and accomplished one of the greatest achievements in the history of humankind. Subsequent missions to explore the lunar surface continued, with astronaut Gene Cernan leaving the last footprint on the Moon in December 1972. Since then, there have been more than 100 US Space Shuttle missions and a continuous human presence in space on the International Space Station (ISS). These are significant accomplishments as far as human spaceflight is concerned, but we have been trapped in the repetitive cycle of low Earth orbit for more than 40 years. If we are to explore this Solar System, we must exit from this pattern.

Exploration has inspired mankind throughout history, and is one of the characteristics of a progressing society. When a nation explores the unknown, it leads to innovation, discovery and, ultimately, prosperity. In addition, it fosters national prestige and inspires citizens, both old and young, to pursue excellence.

So what really is the next logical step for NASA? Is it to return to the Moon, or press forward to Mars? With shrinking space budgets, a lack of political will, and shortages of technological and medical knowledge, the compass points to NASA going back to the Moon. NASA is at a critical juncture. The decisions made by the next President and the US Congress will determine the future of human exploration in our Solar System for decades to come.

Our Moon has certainly helped define life on Earth. As well as scientific value, it offers the possibility of rich, raw resources that could benefit life on Earth. Mars maybe the horizon goal - but there is a hefty price tag and a unique set of problems that must be solved for a successful crewed mission to Mars and back.

Read more on Allyson Reneau's discussion of Mars, the Moon, and the future of NASA in the full version of this article, available now to our subscribers.

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