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Where should NASA go next: moon or Mars?

The moon is closer, but a Mars mission could be the Apollo 11 of this era.

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Skeptics, however, point to a range of obstacles that can be overcome only at high cost, given current technology. In the June issue of the IEEE Spectrum, science writers Fred Guterl and Monica Heger list several of them: rocket motors barely up to the task of getting there, cosmic rays, crew stress, bone and muscle problems related to operating in low or no gravity, and the ensuring enough groceries.

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Mars by 2016?

For longtime Mars advocate, Robert Zubrin, these difficulties shouldn't be showstoppers. He points out that President Kennedy said he picked the goal of a moon landing not because it was easy, but because it was hard.

If the president gives NASA a firm timetable and an adequate budget (say, roughly $40 billion over eight years), humans could land on Mars by 2016 or 2017, with the hardware necessary to sustain themselves and conduct groundbreaking planetary research.

The cost, Mr. Zubrin acknowledges, is not trivial. But, he notes, “It's much less than the amount we gave to AIG in an afternoon.”

The key, he says, is holding NASA to a Kennedy-like deadline.

The 1963 moment

But historians point out that for all the talk of Mars as an inspiring space goal, the one element present in 1963 and missing today is a strong sense of national urgency that was driven by a cold war with an ideological foe. The USSR already had beaten the US in putting into orbit the first satellite and the first human. Kennedy sought a space project the US had a good chance of beating the Soviets – a moon landing became the chosen path.

And even Kennedy reportedly blanched when he saw the initial price tag. Space historian Roger Launius, curator of the Smithsonian Institutions Air and Space Museum in Washington, has noted that once Kennedy saw the cost, he began to speak of space exploration in more international terms, and even raised the issue of cooperation with then Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev.

Dr. Zubrin, an aerospace engineer, says his Mars approach would certainly benefit from international cooperation, especially in spreading the cost out among several players.

But, he adds, “I don't think the program should be held hostage” to the willingness of other countries to take part.

[Editor's note: The original version of this story mistakenly referred to the moon as "another planet."]