August 22, 2019

The Lunatic Entrepreneurs Who Want to Take You to the Moon

“The debate about whether humans choose to go to the Moon or to Mars (or to the Moon and then to Mars) has raged for a long time. Moon-firsters are sometimes called “lunatics,” Mars-firsters “martians.” Mars is more geologically interesting, more chemically interesting, could have once been habitable, and could tell us more about how planets go from being kind of nice to being kind of hellscapes. Also, it’s harder, and we haven’t done it yet.

On the other hand, it’s harder, and we haven’t done it yet. And the Moon is likely more lucrative: With Mars as far out of reach as it is, a lunar economy is likely to bustle much sooner than a martian one. “If you’re a company interested in going to space and making money, the Moon is a much better investment for you,” says Lucianne Walkowicz, the chair of astrobiology at the Library of Congress and an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium, in Chicago. Walkowicz is hosting a conference later this week called “Becoming Interplanetary” and previously hosted one called “Decolonizing Mars.” As a scientist, she’s more interested in using exploration to collect and interpret information that puts our own planet in proper cosmic context. Other planets and moons show us how planets work. But even among scientists, the destination debate isn’t really about whether the Moon or Mars is worthy of our bootprints: It’s about scarcity.

“I think that people would like to do all of those things,” says Walkowicz—go to the Moon, go to Mars, send more ships to other places in the solar system. “A lot of debate comes from the fact that it’s resource-intensive and there are limited resources.” That means limited financial support (especially since even the private exploration companies often depend on government contracts), and limited time: If explorers focus on the Moon, even as a prelude, that likely delays the journey to Mars.

Chris Carberry, CEO of Explore Mars, Inc., is working to figure out how lunatics and martians can work together, because neither faction is going anywhere. Maybe we can successfully choose to go the Moon—and to Mars. “We’re finding ways to achieve that goal that will also not delay Mars by decades,” he says. In addition to R&D alignment, perhaps the commercial players could do their lunar thing, and governments could focus Mars-ward.

Governments, though, are fickle. In the US, every new president has the opportunity to change space-exploration priorities. And even though private companies can technically do their own thing, savvy business people sometimes shift to where support is. George W. Bush was more of a Moon-first guy. Obama looked more Marsward (with a side trip to an asteroid). Under Trump, the Moon is once again in favor. “In an effort to define a space program that in some sense belongs to them and bears their mark,” says Walkowicz, “there’s a tendency to pivot to what the last guy didn’t say.” Destination can come to seem partisan.”

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