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Where should NASA go next: moon or Mars?

The moon is closer, but a Mars mission could be the Apollo 11 of this era.

President Barack Obama, right, greets Apollo 11 astronauts, from left, Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, and Neil Armstrong in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Monday, on the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing.

Alex Brandon/AP

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Grab your coat, Frank. We're headed for: A. The moon. B. Mars. C. Neither.

If it were up to two of the three Apollo 11 astronauts, the answer would be: B. Mars.

The mission's three astronauts headed to the White House Monday to celebrate the 40th anniversary of an historic achievement – setting foot for the first time on another celestial object. At least two of them – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin – were expected to urge President Obama to set the nation's human spaceflight sights on the red planet rather than the moon.

Each mission has passionate advocates. Each presents planners with unique challenges.

Comparing the moon and Mars

The moon has no atmosphere. It has little gravity – about 17 percent that of Earth's at the surface. Its day and night each span roughly 14 Earth days, subjecting explorers and their hardware to searing temperatures followed by a long, deep freeze. And with no wind to smooth out its sharp edges, lunar dust poses a serious hazard.

In return, the moon has a few things to offer. Advocates, including former Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmidt, point to the abundance of helium-3, which can be used to generate energy in future fusion reactors. And if tantalizing hints of water ice at the bottom of the moon’s polar craters turn out true, explorers would have a ready source of rocket fuel – once they split the water into hydrogen and oxygen.

And, of course, the moon is only three or four days away.

Mars, on the other hand, is eight months away even at the point where Eartns and Mars are closest in their orbits of the sun. Once you get there, the first spaceship home doesn't leave for a year or so. It awaits the next close approach between the two planets.


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