The Moon Or Mars? Scientists Debate Man’s Next Outer Space Destination

With both the private and military space race heating up again, the debate over which extraterrestrial surface man should next set foot on is also intensifying.

Granted, our options are currently rather limited on the issue, with Mars and the moon being the only viable destinations in most scientists’ opinions. That does not mean the debate over the question is not lively or even contentious.

It has been nearly 50 years since the Apollo 11 space mission landed on the moon, allowing the first humans ever to set foot on its barren landscape. While landing on the moon again may not seem as romantic or exciting as the possibility of launching the first manned mission to Mars, it could nevertheless prove to be an extremely important and valuable mission — and arguably a more tenable one.

A recent article published by Scientific American focused on the ongoing debate scientists are having about whether to focus on Mars or the moon.

David Kring, a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute, described the moon as a “bonanza” for scientists because of all the information concerning the development of the solar system that is stored within it.

“The best place to answer those questions is on the moon,” Kring explains, noting that the moon’s surface has remained relatively unchanged for 4.5 billion years.

Kring also questions our ability to get to Mars anytime soon and argues that focusing on the moon in the meantime could actually make travel to Mars a reality sooner.

“We all want to get humans on Mars. The question is how do you get there? I don’t think we’re going to develop the right workforce with the capabilities to magically get to Mars by 2035 or 2045. We need to develop the techniques and the workforce for that leap, and that can happen in [lunar orbit] and on the moon.”

Kring suggested that once we become more familiar with travel to the moon and all that entails, we will have an abundance of new information on how to travel to more distant destinations.

“Planetary science will completely change once we get crew beyond low Earth orbit,” Kring said, adding, “The best way to explore the moon is by the well-trained astronaut, hands down. Apollo demonstrated that wonderfully.”

Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame, counters that the prospect of travel to Mars of the moon should not be looked at as an either-or scenario.

“You can’t be a Martian without being a lunatic,” Neal is quoted as saying in the Scientific American article. “If you want to do ‘flags and footprints,’ go to Mars now. But you’ll never go back, because that’s Apollo—a fantastic program, but it was not sustainable.”

Agreeing with Kring to some extent, Neal points out that one reason the moon might be a key to travel to Mars and beyond is because there are considerable pockets of ice stored in craters on the moon that sunlight never penetrates. With sufficient resources based on the moon, that ice could be converted to oxygen and thus help with the production of rocket fuel.

“We have to do some basic geologic prospecting,” Neal says. “And if the moon’s resources are shown to be substantial, you then bring the moon into our economic sphere of influence. I view the moon as enabling, and that comes through its resources.”

Neal and Kring undoubtedly make good points about the pros and cons of focusing on either the moon or Mars when it comes to space travel, but others are moving ahead with plans to head straight to Mars. Elon Musk’s SpaceX appears to be moving closer and closer to launching its first manned mission to Mars, and President Donald Trump recently signed a law adding funds for travel to Mars to NASA’s budget, though the bill is light on details.

[Featured Image by Stanislaw Tokarski/Shutterstock]