In recent weeks, we marked the passing of two heroes of the early U.S. manned space program:  John Glenn was the first American to orbit the Earth, in 1962, and Eugene Cernan was the last astronaut to stand on the Moon.  Since Cernan’s Apollo 17 mission, in 1972, not a single human being has personally explored the lunar surface.  Now, almost 45 years later, there is talk of returning.

All Aboard for Mars

For some, going back to the moon is, well, going backwards.  “Been there, done that,” they say.  We need to become a multi-planet species voyaging far from Earth to explore and colonize other worlds.  Mars is the next step, and getting there is the goal to which we must devote our resources.

One day, human colonists may explore Marathon Valley on Mars. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell Univ./Arizona State Univ.)

In 2010, President Barack Obama gave a major speech at the Kennedy Space Center and said that the U.S. would launch missions to Mars by the mid-2030s.  He seemed to double down on the goal when he published an op-ed, in 2016, in which he wrote, “We have set a clear goal vital to the next chapter of America’s story in space: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s and returning them safely to Earth, with the ultimate ambition to one day remain there for an extended time.”

Unfortunately, President Obama was less willing to provide the financial resources NASA requested, cutting the space agency’s fiscal year 2013 budget for planetary sciences (which are crucial to preparations for an eventual crewed mission to Mars) by 20% from the previous year.  To compensate, Congress increased the allocation that year from $1.2 billion to $1.3 billion, and increased it further each of Obama’s last years in office.

“Going to Mars would make NASA great again.” – Dr. John Grunsfeld, former Associate Administrator, NASA

Still, regardless of intra-governmental budgetary maneuvers, the next destination was Mars.  Or so it seemed.

Backing into the Future

While President Obama, NASA, private sector partners/competitors such as SpaceX, and sympathetic advocates in the media concentrated their attention on the “Journey to Mars,” some influential Republicans (including Newt Gingrich and Oklahoma Congressman James Bridenstine) and others were pushing the idea of a return to the Moon – not just for a visit, but to establish a permanent presence there.

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt stands next to large boulder at the Taurus-Littrow landing site on the Moon. (Image credit: NASA/Eugene Cernan)

In an interview with The Washington Post, the well-respected space policy analyst James Logsdon reasoned that a lunar mission as “a step on the way to Mars” would make sense.  “Politically, most of the other countries of the world have identified the Moon as an interesting destination, and they don’t really have the capabilities to talk about sending people to Mars. If we want to assert international leadership, we would take a position in leading a coalition to return to the Moon.”

Some proponents of establishing a lunar base (or bases) as a stepping stone toward Mars offer up the potential for using the Moon as an economical refueling station for missions out into the Solar System:  Ice from the lunar poles would be mined to produce fuel, and spacecraft would stop by to fill up their tanks before heading to Mars and other destinations.  However, if a crewed NASA mission to Mars had to wait until such bases were up and running, the delay could be decades – or more.

New President, New Priorities

With the election of Donald Trump as president, the immediate future of the U.S. space program is generally up in the air.  As a candidate, Trump said he wanted to “free NASA” from what he saw as uninspiring low-Earth orbit activities and “to refocus its mission on space exploration.”  He also advocated more reliance on public/private partnerships, but he warned that there were other funding priorities:  “We have to fix our potholes.  We don’t exactly have a lot of money,” he told the Post in the context of talking about the space program.

“We are a nation of explorers.  Nations that lead on the frontier lead in the world.” – Eileen Collins, first woman to command a space shuttle mission, at the 2016 Republican National Convention

So far, there have been no policy statements or personnel appointments to guide the readers of NASA tea leaves.  Whether to proceed full speed ahead to Mars, to tap the brakes and return to the Moon first, or somehow to combine the efforts into a single ambitious program is a decision that will, no doubt, be made in time.  We can only hope that it will not be a very long time.

As for James Logsdon’s support for an international consortium that would participate in lunar missions, Trump’s “America First” mantra should give pause to those who advocate such multinational efforts.

Will visitors to the Moon enjoy this view of Earth again in the foreseeable future? (Image Credit: NASA)