Image: NASA Mars rover
NASA's twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, recently marked the passage of a big milestone — seven years on the surface of Mars.
updated 1/14/2011 10:54:54 AM ET 2011-01-14T15:54:54

On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon, and in an instant, the world changed.

Eleven other American astronauts would follow in Armstrong's footsteps over the course of NASA's Apollo program, which produced six moon landings in all. Yet in the 38 years since the sixth landing, humans have not ventured back to their closest cosmic neighbor.

And perhaps we should not. As NASA embarks on a new plan for space exploration amid political uncertainty and budgetary constraints, some experts are hoping the space agency will look beyond the moon for the future of human spaceflight, and instead push deeper into our solar system than ever before.

"We've done the moon — we understand it better than anything else," Buzz Aldrin, lunar module pilot on the Apollo 11 mission and second man to walk on the moon, told "We've got to stop thinking of short-term hurrahs and start thinking of long-term investments."

With China and India aggressively moving forward with robotic and manned missions to the moon, some analysts envision a rehash of the 1960s moon race between the United States and the Soviet Union. And while some camps are calling for a return to the moon to expand lunar science and potentially construct moon bases, others are less thrilled at that prospect.

"As long as I've been involved in spaceflight, for about 20 years now, there has been this debate going on between the two groups," said Roger Launius, senior space history curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington. "I refer to them as the Martians and the Lunatics — the people who want to go to Mars, and the people who want to go back to the moon. No one side has the clear-cut answer. There are positives and negatives for both."

Moon vs. mars
Launius said returning to the moon could address important scientific questions, such as the existence of water ice, but with the objective of traveling to Mars on the horizon, he wonders whether it would cause NASA to be "sidetracked with years upon years of lunar exploration."

"I'm less excited about a human mission back to the moon," Launius said. "I remember the first ones  they were cool. I'd love to see us go to Mars, but it's much more complex and difficult. And I really question whether we're going to be able to develop the expertise to take a task like that on."

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Others agree Mars is a more exciting destination and that a return to the moon should come eventually but should not top the space agency's list of priorities.   

"A return to the moon should not be NASA's primary goal or focus in this decade," said Robert Zubrin, president of the Mars Society. "Rather, the proper goal of NASA's human spaceflight program should be human missions to Mars. From a technological point of view, we are much closer today to being able to send humans to Mars than we were to sending men to the moon in 1961, and we were there eight years later."

Political climate
NASA's now-canceled Constellation program, established during the administration of President George W. Bush, aimed to return American astronauts to the moon by 2020. As part of the roughly $9 billion program, NASA was charged with developing new Ares rockets and a space capsule called Orion that would act as a replacement for the agency's retiring space shuttle fleet.

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But President Obama's 2011 budget request effectively shut down the moon-oriented Constellation program and shifted the focus of future U.S. space exploration toward asteroids and Mars.

On Oct. 11, 2010, Obama signed a major NASA act that turned these lofty goals into law. The signing officially scrapped the Constellation program and set the stage for a manned mission to an asteroid by 2025, followed by a manned mission to Mars, currently envisioned for some time in the 2030s.

The new space plan also opens the door for private spaceflight companies to create commercial vehicles to ferry astronauts into low-Earth orbit (LEO) while NASA sets its sights on targets deeper into the solar system.

One such commercial firm is Space Exploration Technologies, commonly called SpaceX. The Hawthorne, Calif., company's Dragon capsule is designed to transport cargo, and eventually humans, aboard the company's Falcon 9 rocket to the International Space Station.

"I think Mars, given that it holds the potential for making life multi-planetary, is much more important than the moon, and that should be the focus of future manned exploration," said Elon Musk, the chief executive of SpaceX. "However, if there turns out to be a market for traveling to the moon, SpaceX will support that just as we support LEO activity."

Maintaining a reputation of leadership
In addition to his concern that sending more Americans to the moon would tie up resources that could be used to develop Mars-bound technology, Aldrin said engaging in another moon race would jeopardize the legacy of U.S. dominance in space exploration.

"Manned missions to the moon should carefully consider U.S. leadership in space as we expand human presence outward into the solar system," Aldrin said. "If we go back to the moon and get there second or third, that is not U.S. leadership.

Activities going back to the moon should be led by the U.S. – but not at the expense of leading the world in space and expansion outward."

Arguments for human exploration of the Red Planet are no less politically charged.

"Given courageous leadership, we could be on Mars by 2020. That should be our goal," Zubrin said. "To say we cannot do it is to say we have become less than the kind of people we used to be, and that is something this country cannot accept and cannot afford."

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Photos: 50 years of views from the moon

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  1. Up-close exploration of the moon, Earth's only natural satellite, began in 1959 when the Soviet Union launched its Luna 1 spacecraft on a flyby mission. NASA quickly followed up with missions of its own. Since then, the Europeans, Japan, China and India have launched their own lunar exploration programs. This view shows the moon as seen from the international space station. Click the "Next" arrow above to check out 11 images from the moon made over the last 50 years. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 1959: Far side in full view

    In October 1959, the Soviet Union's Luna 3 spacecraft - the third successfully launched to the moon - made history as the first probe to image the far side of the moon. The photos were fixed and dried on the spacecraft and beamed back to Earth. Though fuzzy by today's standards, the images showed stark differences from the near side, including relatively few dark areas, called lunar maria. (RSA via NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. 1966: A restored ‘Earthrise'

    In 1966 and 1967, NASA sent a series of Lunar Orbiter spacecraft to collect detailed images of moon's surface in preparation for the Apollo program. The tapes were then put in storage. Decades later, researchers with the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project collected the vintage hardware required to play back the imagery. That imagery was digitized , reproducing the images at a much higher resolution than previously possible. On Nov. 11, 2008, the project researchers released this enhanced photograph of Earth rising above the lunar surface, originally made by Lunar Orbiter 1 in 1966. (LOIRP / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. 1968: The most famous 'Earthrise'

    On Christmas Eve 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and William Anders made history as the first humans to orbit the moon. They were scouting its surface for a suitable landing spot for future missions. But the sight of Earth rising above the moon's horizon caught their - and the world's - attention. The photograph, called "Earthrise," is among the most famous ever made from the moon. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. 1969: One small step

    On July 20, 1969, an estimated 1 billion people around the world were glued to television screens to watch astronaut Neil Armstrong, commander of Apollo 11, climb down from the lunar module spacecraft for a stroll on the moon. As his foot touched the lunar surface, he famously said "That's one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind." This image is a black-and-white reproduction from the telecast, showing Armstrong stepping down from the lunar module's ladder. (NASA Johnson Space Center) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. 1969: Man on the moon

    Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, shown here, accompanied Armstrong for the famous walk on the moon. This iconic image is one of the few that shows Armstrong on the lunar surface - as seen in the reflection on the spacesuit's visor. The astronauts walked around on the lunar surface for about two and a half hours. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. 1994: Looking for ice

    This mosaic image of the moon's southern polar region, made by the Clementine spacecraft in 1994, suggested that the region could harbor water ice within regions of its craters that are never lit by the sun. The water ice would be left over from impacting comets. Scientists have debated the evidence for and against water ice at the poles ever since the Clementine discovery. The current era of lunar exploration could resolve the debate. If water ice exists, it could help quench the thirst of future human colonists and be used to make fuel for rockets. (NASA / JPL / USGS) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. 2006: European moon probe crashes

    On Sept. 3, 2006, the European Space Agency's SMART-1 spacecraft went out with a bang - a planned crash landing into a volcanic plain called the Lake of Excellence. The impact, shown here, was captured by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope. (The black lines are a processing error due to the brightness of the event.) The spacecraft was launched in 2003 primarily to test an ion propulsion system, which uses energy captured by the sun to produce a stream of charged particles. The slow-and-steady propulsion system may be used on future interplanetary missions. (Christian Veillet / CFHT via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. 2007: China targets the moon

    China made its first major strides in the lunar exploration game with the launch of the Chang'e 1 spacecraft in October 2007. The orbiter was sent to make a detailed, 3-D map of the moon's surface. Premier Wen Jiabao unveiled the first image at a ceremony in Beijing, shown here. Chang'e 1's 16-month mission ended with a controlled crash. The country reportedly plans to launch lunar rovers in 2010 and 2017, and a manned mission to the moon by 2020. (Huang Jingwen / XINHUA NEWS AGENCY) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. 2008: India joins the lunar club

    The Indian Space Research Organization successfully launched its Chandrayaan 1 spacecraft on Oct. 22, 2008, for a mapping mission to the moon. A probe released from the mothership took this picture of the lunar surface during its descent to a planned crash landing at the south pole. The Indian space agency plans to use this and other data for a lunar rover mission in 2011 and, eventually, a manned mission. (ISRO via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. 2009: Japan orbiter watches eclipse

    Some eclipse enthusiasts travel the globe to glimpse alignments of the sun, Earth and moon. Japan's Kaguya probe did them one better: It shot this sequence of a Feb. 10, 2009, eclipse from its lunar orbit. The image shows the view of the sun from the moon mostly covered by Earth. The "ring" appears dark at the bottom because it is obscured by the night-darkened limb of the moon. The Kaguya orbiter was launched in September 2007 to study the moon's origin and evolution. It made a controlled crash landing on the moon in June 2009. (JAXA / NHK) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. 2009: NASA goes back to the moon

    On June 18, 2009, NASA launched two spacecraft to the moon to map its surface in unprecedented detail, scout for future landing sites, and smash probes into a permanently shaded crater in hopes of resolving a longstanding debate over whether such regions contain water ice. NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will orbit both poles for a year, and its mission could be extended to serve as a communications relay for future lunar missions. This is one of the first pictures sent back by the orbiter. LRO's sibling, the crater-smacking LCROSS probe, is due to impact the moon's south pole in October. (NASA / GSFC / ASU) Back to slideshow navigation
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