The U.S.' Last Moon Visit Was 42 Years Ago, And It's Time We Returned (Because, Mars!)

The last time the U.S. sent men to the moon was on Apollo 17, and the three astronauts came back with groundbreaking findings that suggested that there had been volcanic activity there. That was 42 years ago. Now, the National Research Council's Committee on Human Spaceflight is revisiting the idea of going to the moon, not just to update our records with findings from this generation, but because moon exploration could pave the way for our real target: Mars.

The most recent initiative that aimed to send men back to the moon, with Mars as its final destination, was NASA's Constellation program. The initiative was broken up into three stages: completion of the International Space Station in low earth orbit, a return to the moon no later than 2020, and ending with a first visit to Mars.

According to an overview of Constellation, the goal was to "establish a program to develop a sustained human presence on the moon, including a robust precursor program to promote exploration, science, commerce and U.S. preeminence in space, and as a stepping stone to future exploration of Mars and other destinations."

However, Constellation was cut when Obama, in a 2010 federal budget request, called the program "over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation," according to the BBC. Boooo.

In the wake of Constellation's shuttering, two camps seemed to have formed, both with the common goal of reaching that ever-enticing distant prize that is Mars. Both have their merits, but let's break each one down.

The Asteroid Camp

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After the Constellation program was shut down, NASA changed the direction of its path to Mars, this time via an asteroid. NASA's Asteroid Initiative, slated for 2025, would essentially use a Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) as a docking station of sorts to build the steps toward Mars. First, a preliminary robotic expedition would redirect the asteroid into a stable lunar orbit. Once the asteroid is relocated, astronauts would then be able to use it as an outpost in place of the International Space Station, so that they can adapt to being more autonomous in deep space.

Currently, astronauts go back to the International Space Station for emergencies and resources, making these missions "earth reliant." A successful trip to Mars, which takes significantly longer than what astronauts are used to, would require them to be "earth independent."

Moreover, studying the asteroid itself can prove beneficial as well. Some asteroids may contain resources that astronauts could use to extract water and breathable air and create rocket fuel.

The Moon Camp

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While NASA intends to go the route of the asteroid, others are arguing that nothing beats the moon in terms of going to Mars.

"The moon, and in particular its surface, (has) significant advantages over other targets as an intermediate step on the road to the horizon goal of Mars," the Committee on Human Spaceflight wrote in a report. "This argument is made despite the barely touched scientific record of the earliest solar system that lies hidden in the lunar crust, despite its importance as a place to develop the capabilities required to go to Mars, and despite the fact that the technical capabilities and operational expertise of Apollo belong to our grandparent's generation."Planetary scientist Chris McKay agrees, writing in a paper titled "The Case for a NASA Research Base on the Moon," "It is clear to me that we will not be able to build a long-term research base on Mars if we don't first do it on the moon." His paper proposes a NASA moon base similar to the asteroid base.

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