SpaceX’s plan to send two private citizens on a round-the-moon trip in 2018 was a big surprise to everyone — including NASA. There is no indication the agency was given a heads up about SpaceX’s announcement. Of course, NASA trotted out a statement of positive feelings for its commercial partner, and suggested that SpaceX’s pursuits in this realm and others meant NASA had more time and resources to allocate to go “beyond the moon and sustain deep space exploration.”

If that’s really the plan, NASA would be wise to stick with it — and President Donald Trump would be even wiser to let the agency set its own course and focus on the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars.

When the Obama administration nixed NASA’s Constellation program (which sought a resurrection of human spaceflight to the moon) in favor of a larger goal of exploring Mars, the agency began pursuing technologies that were more critical to facilitating crewed missions much farther out. The “Journey to Mars,” as NASA likes to call it, started to get fleshed out, with NASA greenlighting two key technologies that would help humans make it happen: Orion, a new deep space crew capsule, and the Space Launch System, a new heavy-lift rocket which would ensure the feasibility of traveling hundreds of thousands of miles deep into space.

NASA Orion Spacecraft
NASA Orion Spacecraft

But these are just two items on the docket. NASA is also developing deep space habitats to investigate the effects of long- duration spaceflight on the human body. The agency is relying on 3D printing to build hypothetical structures on other worlds, understanding the nature of asteroids to make asteroid mining feasible, among other projects and investigations.

All of that falls under the purview of the journey to Mars. A mission to Mars doesn’t really mean just Mars — it represents the future of space travel.

To that end, cis-lunar space will be a critical stopping point in longer journeys to other planets.

Concept: Space Launch System Launch (NASA, Space Launch System, 06/28/12)
Artist's concept of NASA's Space Launch System initial crew vehicle launching from the Kennedy Space Center.

Humans should return to the moon. It doesn’t mean NASA should be involved.

The Trump administration has reintroduced the idea of redirecting NASA’s work towards crewed lunar missions. The chatter has been large enough to cause people to speculate that Trump put pressure on NASA to consider making its next Orion test mission a crewed mission to the moon.

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It’s entirely unclear what exactly a moon mission would accomplish, and what NASA or the U.S. would gain out of more crewed missions to the moon. If the goal is paving the way for the future colonization of Mars, the purpose of a lunar mission has to be explicitly defended.

Ironically, none other than SpaceX CEO Elon Musk pointed out why his company is uninterested in going to the moon (remember, the company’s moon mission just goes around the moon; it doesn’t land on it):

“We could conceivably go to the moon, and I have nothing against going to the moon, but I think it’s challenging to create a… Become multiplanetary on the moon because it’s much smaller than been a planet. It doesn’t have any atmosphere, it’s not as resource-rich as Mars, it’s got a 28-day day — whereas the Mars day is 24-and-a-half hours. And in general Mars is far better suited to ultimately scale up to be a self-sustaining civilization.

The moon, actually, offers very little — except for the fact that it’s land that can be used to situate other structures on.

moon colony
Artist's illustration of a moon colony.

While that’s important — the moon is an opportune structure on which to build and operate infrastructure for deep space travel — NASA should still focus on the goal of getting to Mars. Up until now, the agency has been encouraging leaving the moon to other space agencies to work on. The European Space Agency, for instance, has repeatedly pointed to a desire to build a permanent outpost on the moonby 2040.

You can’t ask for a better friend to take care of the moon for you. NASA and the ESA are exceptionally close collaborators on many different projects. The two agencies share very similar agendas. It makes sense to hand off crewed lunar missions to ESA rather than for NASA to take up this work itself.

It’s also clear ESA won’t be alone. There is already a robust amount interest among private parties to help explore and cultivate the moon for resources and space operations. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Blue Origin, has just pitched a plan for delivering packages to the moon, a sort of Amazon for space. There’s no question NASA can work with willing partners to help use the moon’s proximity and resources as a conduit for making the trip to Mars easier and more efficient.

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Trump was expected to tell Congress in his speech Tuesday evening that he wanted to increase America’s human space exploration efforts. He tiptoed around that point but was ambiguous on specifics. The administration might best serve American space policy over the next four years by sticking to that vague script and letting NASA handle the specifics. NASA should focus on the big, red tamale we call Mars, letting the up-and-comers of the world deal with the moon.

Photos via NASA / Flickr, Flickr / NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Science Photo Library, Flickr / Ana Sofia Guerreirinho