Fifty years ago, the U.S. had the moon to itself. Starting in 1969, when the first of six Apollo missions touched down, it seemed likely that American astronauts would make a long-term home on the lunar surface. Instead, the U.S. sent its last manned mission there in 1972, and won’t be returning any time soon. That’s a shame: The moon is now a more compelling destination than ever.
Other countries, seeing new scientific and commercial potential there, have started to fill the exploration gap, including China, Russia and Japan. Perhaps the most ambitious effort is the European Space Agency’s “moon village,” which is intended to be a permanent international outpost on the lunar surface.
In recent weeks, the concept has gained considerable momentum as Europe’s science ministers and private space companies have embraced it. If the U.S. wants to join them, and resume its historic role as the leader in lunar exploration, it’ll need a major shift in priorities.
America’s space program is currently focused on the “Journey to Mars,” a hugely expensive undertaking approved by President Barack Obama in 2010. The (still hazy) plan is to fly astronauts around the red planet — and possibly land there — in the 2030s, bypassing the moon entirely.
As a growing number of experts have cautioned, though, that could be a costly mistake. Getting back to the moon first makes more sense, both as a destination in its own right and as a way station en route to Mars. For starters, such a mission could be a scientific bonanza.
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