This is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report: Why Mars? Why Now?
This article was corrected on 25 June 2009.
It’s an irrational thing, the pull of the moon. From time immemorial, the White Goddess has been held responsible for menstrual cycles, moods, and madness; she’s the mythic governess of our dreams and emotions.
In 1969, Neil Armstrong’s small step for man electrified people around the world, and in the United States it provided a momentary respite from social upheaval. Work done by Armstrong and his successors transformed our understanding of the moon, setting in motion research that continues to this day.
Of course, nobody pretends that the United States went to the moon mainly for science, and if people return to the moon now, it won’t be all for science, either. In the 1960s, the point was to win a race with the Soviet Union. Today the supposed point is to use the moon as a stepping-stone to Mars.
Of the nearly 7 billion people on Earth today, four out of five were not alive when the first lunar landing took place. Without a doubt, a great many of them would love to see people back on the moon again. But does it make sense to spend the US $50 billion it might cost to get them there? Do we need a base on the moon to get to Mars? And if not, should we bother going to the moon at all?
Playing perhaps more to our passions than our reason, in January 2004 President George W. Bush promulgated a program to return to the moon by 2020 and make it a staging area for a mission to Mars, perhaps two decades later. His father, President George H.W. Bush, had suggested essentially the same plan in 1989, but because of the enormous expense and conflicting U.S. commitments in space, it was dead on arrival. The second time around the vision fared better, eventually winning the endorsement—at least on paper—of all the world’s space powers.
But you didn’t have to scratch very hard to discover that such support was often only skin deep, even in the United States itself. Bush never actually mentioned his vision again, and the U.S. Congress promptly excised funding for the Mars part, instructing NASA to focus strictly on the moon. The effect was to radically disconnect the moon from Mars planning, even though going to Mars was supposedly the main rationale for returning to the moon.
Recognizing the vulnerability of the moon-Mars enterprise, Bush’s NASA administrator, the hard-driving if abrasive Michael Griffin, made it his business to push ahead with the program so fast that ultimately it could not be reversed without incurring unacceptable economic and political costs. He may have succeeded. Even though he would fall out with President Barack Obama’s transition team—informing team members bluntly that it was his job, not theirs, to ”look under the hood” at NASA—by the time Griffin stepped down in January, development work on key moon-mission elements was far advanced. The feeling was that the plan would proceed, whether or not it really made sense.