November 26, 2012
I tend to believe that manned exploration should first aim at the development of a permanent base on the Moon, probably at one of the poles. Any expedition to Mars will certainly take at least a year, even with only a short stay on the planet or its moons. Any longer stay will necessarily be for three years or longer, owing to planetary mechanics. The lunar base would allow for the development under 'real' circumstances of tecnhologies for long term survival.The study of energy conservation, food production, and physical and psychological limitations for long terms in isolation at low gravity will all be necessary. On the Moon, if things start to go wrong, as something inevitably will, help will not be too far away, and the base can be regularly resupplied. Also the crew can be taken off at fairly short notice in the case of major problems. On Mars or an asteroid none of this can apply. If humankind is to have a long term future in space all the significant technologies need to be fully developed and tested under real conditions for an extended period, or any long term expedition or settlement is likely to end badly (see Biosphere 2!) . A rapid Mars touchdown and return (similar to the Apollo landings) is probably feasible in the fairly near future, but any long term permanent base(s) will demand extended testing on a near-Earth body (with gravity): the Moon is the only candidate. I (very optimistically) hope that both the Mars landing and the beginning of a Lunar base may both happen in my lifetime (I am 70!), but the lunar base is more important.
An asteroid or comet headed for Earth is the only large-scale natural disaster we can prevent. Working together to fund our Shoemaker NEO Grants for astronomers, we can help save the world.