Forget Mars — we should go back to the moon

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone…
–President John F. Kennedy, Sept. 12, 1962

As I said in my last post, we used to dream about the stars. We dreamed of reaching out and leaving our footprints on the surfaces of far-off worlds.

We started with the moon.

And ended with the moon…in just three years.

Since 1972 (incidentally, the year I was born), the moon has been abandoned by humans. Landers, flags, lunar rovers, golf balls, backpacks, cameras, boots and more litter its surface, dusty relics serving as the only reminders that humans once dared to dream big.

Dude, where's my car? A lunar rover lays abandoned on the surface of the moon. (Credit: NSSDC/GSFC/NASA)
Dude, where’s my car? A lunar rover lays abandoned on the surface of the moon. (Credit: NSSDC/GSFC/NASA)

The reasons for the end of the moon program are numerous, and I won’t delve into them here. But what I will address is the future of human space exploration.

The launch of Orion was a spectacular stepping stone to reigniting the passion of exploration, yes. But let’s be fair: Orion’s future is murky at best. With a relatively unclear path to the stars (are we going to an asteroid? Mars?), NASA is lacking a firm and focused human mission (though I say it is through not fault of their own).

Many say that Mars is the next logical step; that this should be Orion’s ultimate destination, with Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin being a very loud voice behind the drive. The moon? some say. Been there, done that.

But have we? Have we really explored the moon? Have we really used its resources? Gleaned a better understanding of its origins and thus our own? Have we utilized our companion to its fullest?

No. And it’s arrogant to assume we have.

So here I present to you my arguments for returning to our nearest neighbour.

1. Analog testing ground

For me, going to Mars before going to the moon is like learning to run before you can walk.

Earthrise, as taken from astronauts aboard Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968. Imagine celebrating Christmas with this view.

We have NO experience living in space for long periods (only this year will NASA send its first astronaut to live aboard the space station for one year). We have NO experience sending a manned craft anywhere beyond the moon. And let’s not even talk about the fact that we’re not clear about what the relatively high dose of solar and cosmic rays will do to a human body during a trip and then during a stay on a planet that has very little protection (to learn more, read this).

Yet we think that planning for a one-and-a-half to two-year mission to Mars (travel time is about 6 to 9 months one way depending on the alignment of Earth and Mars) is something that we are capable of taking on.

Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with ambition. It was ambition that got us to the moon in the first place (that and political fearmongering). But setting up a base on Mars will be far more difficult than on the Moon and require far more investment (to begin with, further distance means more fuel to get there, which means heavier payloads, which all costs more).

Our beloved Canadian space hero Chris Hadfield recently had something to say about heading to Mars before the moon:

“If we started going to Mars any time soon everybody would die,” he told The Guardian. “We don’t know what we are doing yet. We have to have a bunch of inventions between now and Mars.”

The moon allows us to learn with much less risk. Rather than a 6-month trip, it’s days away. It’s a lot easier to learn to live on a rock that is days away, versus one that is almost a year away. If something goes wrong — and something is bound to — it’s easier to get help when it’s just days away.

2. Port of launch

Now, let’s say that we do learn to overcome the challenges of living in space. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a place from which we could launch missions to other planets or moons?

Mars is not the only body out there that is worth exploring. There are compelling reasons to visit Jupiter’s moon Europa, for example, or Saturn’s moon Enceladus. And there are many more.

The moon would present a great opportunity to set up base. We could set up refuelling stations or locations to repair satellites. The moon presents a great opportunity for being a port or jumping off point to beyond. Going to Mars limits our reach into space greatly.

3. More science

Going to the Moon means we get to learn more about not only the formation about the solar system, but about Earth, too. During the Apollo missions a rock was brought back to Earth that dates back to the formation of the solar system. Imagine what else we could learn with more research.

We have only explored six regions on the moon, a celestial body with a surface area of 37,936,694.79 km2 (for comparison, Earth’s is 510,064,472 km2). Modern humans have been on this planet for about 200,000 years. And in that time we still haven’t explored every corner of our planet, nor come to understand it completely. How can we believe that we’ve “been there, done that” on the lunar surface when we’ve barely scratched the dirt in six locations?

The moon has not given up all of its secrets.
The moon has not given up all of its secrets.

4. Resources

There is water on the moon. There are minerals on the moon: helium-3, silicon, aluminum, titanium…

While the abundance of the material is not completely known (which lends support to my point about more scientific exploration), mining it would help economic development, while at the same time providing resources that could be used in rockets, satellites, and here at home.

Why would we not seize the opportunity to learn about our moon, use it for resources, all while preparing to reach out beyond?

The allure of Mars has long gripped humanity, and well it should. It is a marvellous world that humans will one day call home, and it, too, presents numerous opportunities to benefit and further mankind. But let’s learn to temper our enthusiasm with advances that make sense.

If we run before we can walk, we will see certain failure. And we may find ourselves back at this lonely juncture, with the remains of spacecraft covered in red dust, wondering where we went wrong.

I leave you with this wonderful, inspiring speech by Neil deGrasse Tyson when he was on the Bill Maher show a few years ago. Here he gives an impassioned speech about why Americans should continue to invest more in NASA and start dreaming again.

2 thoughts on “Forget Mars — we should go back to the moon

  1. But according to former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, we should be looking to go back to the moon before making the giant leap to the red planet.

  2. Nice post Nicole. I was just having a chat the other day at work about how I think the Moon should be first as well. I think more should have been done by now. There should have been some sort of base on the moon decades ago.

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