Debate: Go to the Moon, but Then What?
By: Jim Hodges

Moon first, then Mars and perhaps elsewhere. All four scientists who spoke at the Moon-Mars Forum on Tuesday agreed on that much.

It's what happens after NASA astronauts get to the moon that spawned a lively debate at the Virginia Air and Space Center in Hampton. That debate was part of the National Institute of Aerospace/Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate Distinguished Lecture Series.

"It's close, it's interesting and it's useful," said Paul Spudis of the moon. Spudis is a senior staff scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, and he believes the moon can provide interim sustenance for exploring other planets.

"It's a natural testing ground where we can go and learn how to explore and live on other worlds," Spudis said. "Second, its material and energy resources are available to allow us to begin to understand the problem of creating capability with a low-level starting point."

Joel Levine.

NASA Langley scientist Joel Levine tells a group at the Air and Space Center that studying Mars can bring answers to Earth's global warming issues, because Mars lost 99.9 percent of its atmosphere and all of its oceans.
Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Click image to enlarge

Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute and a Professor of Practice in International Affairs at George Washington University, agreed. Pace also expressed a lack of patience with those who say that the U.S. has been to the moon, that it's nothing new, that it's boring.

When someone says that, "I will look at them, sort of calculate their age and say 'maybe your father went to the moon, but you didn't go to the moon,' " Pace said. " 'What have you done? … What has this generation done?' … We are re-learning, trying to re-capture skills that we once had, but which atrophied and were lost. ... It's about re-training a generation."

But Scott Hubbard, a professor at Stanford and former director of NASA's Ames Research Center, largely dismissed the moon as a "steppingstone to Mars and beyond."

He pointed out the difference between the atmosphere on Earth and Mars and the problems posed by landing on each as a concern when planning a vehicle for what could be two very different missions.

There's also a concern that we could get bogged down financially with moon exploration.

"It's a 51-49 sort of decision," Hubbard said. "You can probably cobble together … some experiments and retire the risk on some of these needed technologies to go to Mars."

Joel Levine, senior research scientist in the Science Directorate at NASA Langley, agreed.

"It probably makes sense to go to the moon first," he said. "It gives you a base for exploration. But it's hard to justify in light of science."

Spudis disagreed with that.

"To say that we understand the moon after six Apollo missions, and they were over 30 years ago, and there was an aggregate time of less than a week on the moon (is wrong)," he said. "We don't understand everything about the moon. We haven't answered all of the questions that the moon poses."

Everyone agreed with the value of moving past the moon and on to Mars.

"In order to understand whether there's life in the universe, whether there's life in the solar system, Mars is probably our first stop," Levine said.

He added the value of studying Mars as a means to learning more about Earth.

"We're worried about global warming on Earth," he said. "The temperature is increasing because of global carbon dioxide caused by human activities. Mars has undergone catastrophic climate change. Mars has lost 99.9 percent of its atmosphere, and Mars has lost its oceans. We want to understand what happened and whether there are any lessons to be learned for the future of our planet."

That much exploration is already being done robotically, with more in the future, is not lost on the four scientists. They advocate a mixture of robotic and human exploration of the moon and Mars, and add that a reason for the need for humans in the mix is because of the limitations of robots.

"Robots give us basic data," Hubbard said. "They lay the groundwork, but they are fixed in their objectives and you have to tell them what to do.

"Humans take it to the next step. They can make sense of a complicated array of data. They can make decisions on the spot. They can pick the place to go. They can assign meaning, not just data collection."

But, he added, "it's a false dichotomy to say that it's either humans or robots. It's humans and robots together."

Their mission will not just be exploration for exploration's sake, but for value in the future. It's not a case for getting to the moon or Mars, but for staying there.

"The real question is not can we live off the land, but is there a human future beyond the Earth?" Pace said. "If the answer is that we can live off the land, there are useful things to do, then we get space settlements, space colonies. If the answer is no, we can't, then space becomes something like Mount Everest – something for people to visit. It's neat. It's a place for adventure, but no, you don't want to live there."

Moon? Mars?

"I look at this in a slightly different way," Spudis said. "I don't think the issue is moon vs. Mars. I'm not satisfied with the moon. I'm not satisfied with Mars. I want to go everywhere, to all of the planets. I want to study them. Each planet has a story to tell."


NASA Langley Research Center
Managing Editor: Jim Hodges
Executive Editor and Responsible NASA Official: H. Keith Henry
Editor and Curator: Denise Lineberry