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Should nations fly to the moon together?

As exploring the heavens becomes more expensive, many experts think it is time for nations to band together to push humanity to the next threshold of space exploration.

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But these tend to be lone projects – a lunar water sensor supplied here, a joint satellite launch there. Some now believe it's time for true collaboration – missions jointly conceived, jointly funded, and jointly carried out – to push mankind to the next threshold of space exploration and to forge a new spirit of cooperation among nations. In other words, a sort of Star Trek Starfleet Command. They see it as the only way mankind can continue the quest, innate since the days of the caveman, to find out "what's over the next horizon."

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Yet before the world embarks on any kind of cosmic Kumbaya ride, a fundamental question looms: Can spacefaring nations really overcome the impediments that have traditionally inhibited such ventures – national pride, suspicion of sharing technology, bureaucratic and cultural differences?

"We have to do it or we won't be doing the grand mission of exploration," says Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, a space-exploration advocacy group in Pasadena, Calif.

ONE THING IS CERTAIN: Spaceflight isn't cheap, whether you're launching cameras or cosmonauts. The Augustine committee, appointed to study options for the future of NASA's human spaceflight program, reiterated this point in its report to the White House. Part of the challenge: The questions driving scientists to explore outer space grow more complicated with each mission. As a result, so does the hardware they send skyward.

Consider just the evolution of NASA's Mars rovers, the little wheeled robots that nuzzle rocks and beam back pictures of the planet's surface. Sojourner, part of the Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997, could easily sit on a large coffee table (total cost, including the launch: $265 million). The two rovers currently on Mars, Opportunity and Spirit, are the size of small golf carts (cost: $820 million for the pair). The Mars Science Laboratory, scheduled for launch in 2011, could substitute for a car (estimated price tag: $2.2 billion).

When humans are added to the passenger list instead of robots, the expenditures rise exponentially. Scientists need to make sure they leave, arrive, and return safely. And if you're talking settlements on the moon or Mars, you're adding the expense of generating power, shipping gear, and designing spacesuits and tools that can withstand unfathomably harsh environments – moon dust alone poses a constant threat since it is essentially bits of broken glass. These items don't just come off the shelf at Home Depot. One longtime estimate for a simple lunar outpost has been pegged at $33 billion. Others estimate it at $100 billion over 10 years.

The Augustine committee was predictably sober about what the US can do about sending humans into space with the money currently allotted. Yes, it said, the US can go back to the moon, as President Obama has indicated might be good. It could probably build a rocket and a lunar capsule. But without additional funding – at least $3 billion by mid-decade (NASA's current budget is $17.8 billion) – the agency would have to stretch out the program. Ares, the next-generation rocket, wouldn't be ready until just before the agency turned out the lights on the space station. There would be no money to fabricate the things needed to live on the lunar surface. Astronauts would be suited up with no place to go.