Why returning to the moon is more critical than reaching Mars

Why returning to the moon is more critical than reaching Mars
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For the good of our future, and most especially our national security, the modern-day snake oil sales people in and around our space program must be stopped.

Included in that group are those methodically insisting, “We must send humans to Mars,” as well as some connected with what is often mislabeled as the “private-sector space program.”

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With regard to the foolish narrative that we need to invest, ultimately, tens of billions of dollars to send humans to Mars, two of the three men to first orbit the moon more than 50 years ago said it best.

Bill Anders, part of the three-person crew (with Jim Lovell and Frank Borman) of Apollo 8, the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth’s orbit and to orbit the moon in December 1968, recently cut to the chase in an interview with BBC Radio. Sending humans to Mars, he declared, is  “stupid,” in fact, “almost ridiculous.”

He posed critically important questions: “What’s the imperative? What’s pushing us to go to Mars?”

Borman, his colleague on that historic flight, touched upon the manufactured imperative that is draining precious time, money and talent from our space program. Asked about the ever-evolving plans of SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos to send to humans Mars — and even “colonize” it — Borman said:

“I do think there’s a lot of hype about Mars that is nonsense. Musk and Bezos, they’re talking about putting colonies on Mars; that’s nonsense.”

Nonsense indeed.

Recently, to a huge amount of media attention, Musk tweeted out a photo of SpaceX’s “Massive Starship” test rocket: “Starship test flight rocket just finished assembly at the @SpaceX Texas launch site. This is an actual picture, not a rendering.”

A former high-level NASA official told me Musk’s rocket “honestly looks like a hollow steel skeleton covered in heavy-duty aluminum foil.”

Maybe Musk is simply playing a practical joke on the media and the industry and is privately amazed he’s getting away with it. His “Massive Starship” literally looks like something from a 1950s comic book or bad B-movie.

Musk, Bezos and the late Paul Allen, founder of Stratolaunch, should be applauded and recognized for their passion with regard to human spaceflight. It’s a passion that has filtered down to the public. That said, it must be noted that private-sector space plutocrats are getting, collectively, billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars and subsidies.

Why? As stressed in the movie “The Right Stuff”: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”

Getting humans into space, and most especially beyond the orbit of Earth, is incredibly expensive. Every dollar is precious and can’t be wasted.

Every human spaceflight dollar and every resource must be dedicated to returning Americans to the surface of the moon — returning them to stay. The misguided fantasy of sending humans to Mars must be abandoned.

A journey to the moon takes three days. A round-trip journey to Mars would be dramatically more hazardous for the crew and likely would take three years. And then, what is the true accomplishment for that first journey? More than $200 billion spent to plant a politically correct United Nations flag on the surface — and maybe stay for month or two.

Then what? How much is the next journey, and the next?

The People’s Republic of China and now Russia are pointing all of their space resources at the moon for two practical reasons: military and economic superiority.

China’s human spaceflight program is a military program. Period. China’s president Xi Jinping, much like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, knows that no nation is more dependent upon its satellites in low and geosynchronous orbit for national security and economic survival than the United States.  That’s why these competitors are continually war-gaming how to take those satellites out of service, should the need arrive.

China, which just sent a lunar rover to the far side of the moon, has decided that military and economic dominance from low-Earth orbit to the surface of the moon is key to its long-term survival. Where have I heard that strategy before?

Oh, yes, President John F. Kennedy stressed it in 1962 when he spoke of the need for the United States to be preeminent in space: “Our leadership in science and in industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us … to become the world’s leading space-faring nation.”

China and Russia hope that our political leaders ignore that critical dictate and continue to waste billions of dollars on aiming for Mars and boosting private-sector space programs, while the Chinese and Russians set up shop on the moon.

Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon. He was a consultant to the team responsible for the space shuttle (United Space Alliance) and then NASA. He is the author of “Footprints: The 12 Men Who Walked on the Moon Reflect on their Flights, their Lives, and the Future.”