With a succinct, practical statement in 2010, President Barack Obama quashed the pipedreams of aspiring lunar astronauts: “I have to say it pretty bluntly here, we’ve been there before.”
But NASA says to not write off the moon quite so fast. Stopping there could make it easier to reach the next big destination in space: Mars.
The moon is attractive in the near term for NASA because it’s much closer than Mars, allowing for little communication lag with astronauts and, in an emergency, a means to get them safely home in a few days.
As well as potential caches of fuel at the poles, the moon’s surface would offer a key test bed for rovers, habitation modules and other technologies before sending astronauts deep into space with no hope of return. There would also be more opportunities for the burgeoning private space industry to participate.
But whether Americans will actually return to the moon likely boils down to political relationships and money.
The space race of the 1960s was largely spurred on by Cold War competition, but a new moon landing would be about cooperation (or, at the very least, a shift in who is considered the competitor). “[NASA’s] international partners, including many European countries, have expressed a desire to explore the moon, but faced with NASA’s public disinterest in the moon since 2010 these partners have begun working with China,” the Chronicle reports. “Given the overall success of the space station program, however, Europe, Canada and Japan would likely be eager participants in U.S.-led venture to return to the moon.”
In terms of spending, NASA sees stopping at the moon on the way to Mars as a bargain rather than a splurge. “The agency is grappling with how to sustain a major Mars program within a limited budget,” reports the Chronicle. “NASA’s share of the federal budget today is less than one-half of one percent. During the Apollo program it received nearly five percent.” William Gerstenmaier, chief of human exploration for NASA, believes revisting the moon could cut costs, because it could lay the groundwork for Mars-bound vessels to fuel up on oxygen and hydrogen. “If the propellant was available from the moon, this could dramatically lower the mass needed from the Earth for a NASA Mars mission,” Gerstenmaier says.
But NASA has yet to make concrete plans for travel to Mars, with or without a lunar stop. Until then, hopeful astronauts can only dream of shooting for the moon—or beyond.