Last week, NASA put out a call for applications for its next class of astronauts. In recent years, when the agency has asked for résumés, the job was shuttling back and forth between Earth and the International Space Station (ISS). But for the first time in nearly 50 years, some of the aspiring space travelers might be training for a mission to the moon.
President Donald Trump wants NASA to fly American astronauts to the lunar surface and beyond. Congress, the president said during his recent State of the Union address, should fund his administration’s new program “to ensure that the next man and the first woman on the moon will be American astronauts.” This effort, he said, would serve as “a launching pad to ensure that America is the first nation to plant its flag on Mars.”
But what if NASA didn’t stop at the moon first? What if, instead of pouring time, effort, and money into reaching the lunar surface again, the space agency embarked on an unprecedented journey straight to the red planet?
The moon-versus-Mars question is older than the Trump administration’s space ambitions. It has been debated since the last men departed from the moon in the 1970s, when NASA, having achieved a seemingly impossible feat, started pondering what to try next. The conditions that fueled the space program half a century ago—when less than a decade passed between John F. Kennedy’s vow to send a man to the moon and the Apollo moon landing—no longer exist (and unless you wanted to risk war, it wouldn’t be wise to replicate them). Neither does the budget that made it happen. So the country’s next chapter in exploring other worlds may be more open-ended than ever.