Everything we hear from the space industry these days is about going to Mars – they have a real mania for it. So we have to ask, is going to Mars in person a good idea? Yes, we think it’s a great idea, but now is the wrong time. There are many problems which will have to be addressed before people can live on Mars and in our opinion these problems should first be solved in the far safer environment of the Moon.

The first of these is how people will live safely on Mars, where, unlike the Earth, there is very little atmosphere to protect them from solar radiation. This is similar to the Moon – just as on Mars, people living there would also have to be protected from radiation bursts from the sun. The Apollo moon missions had a plan for this which only gave them a few minutes’ warning to try and protect themselves. We are glad a radiation burst didn’t happen while the astronauts were exposed on the Moon, but this also means we still have no experience of dealing with such an event. We need a tried and tested way to protect people before any mission to Mars. This should be trialled by a moon colony – a much safer place to do so as a rescue mission to the Moon will take only days rather than the months it would take to reach Mars. Similarly, a real long-term colony on Mars may have to be situated beneath the planet’s surface, and this again would be easier and safer to trial closer to Earth on the Moon.

The next problem about going to Mars is the practicality of getting there. We loved the film ‘The Martian’ with Matt Damon, but noted that the ship in which the crew returns to Earth is massive and almost luxurious. This would certainly be ideal for the crew’s sanity and safety over the many months the Mars journey would take, but in reality we cannot launch such a ship from Earth. We could build it here but it would be too heavy to get off the ground. The Saturn V rocket that got the Apollo spacecraft into Earth orbit was the biggest, most powerful rocket ever built, and it still holds the records for the heaviest payload launched and the largest payload capacity placed into low Earth orbit. However, anyone who saw the videos sent back by the crews of the Apollo missions, or who has seen ‘Apollo 13’, knows that what the most powerful rocket ever built can actually get out into space is tiny. It is definitely not big enough for even a single person, plus all the supplies they would need, for the far longer journey to Mars.

Hollywood has done us a favour in showing us huge spacecraft crossing vast distances, because that is exactly what we will need to build. If we can assemble space stations in Earth orbit we can also assemble spacecraft in orbit. But around Earth space is filled with junk and more is being added every day, making it a hazardous area (think about the film ‘Gravity’). The Moon on the other hand is still pristine so it would be quite safe to assemble large spacecraft in lunar orbit. Although it will be a massive undertaking to launch from Earth the number of rockets needed to build a really large, Mars-mission-worthy spacecraft in lunar orbit, at least once Earth orbit has been left they can basically coast the rest of the way, pulled by the Moon’s gravity.

Dreams are good for civilization – that is how we got to the Moon in the first place. Just as they did then, someone of stature needs to stand up now and say “We are going to have a moon colony by this date”. Yes, it will be expensive. Deep in the darkest recesses of our hearts we sometimes feel the reason lunar missions were halted was that there was no money to be made there. We hope to be proved wrong.

Science fiction can lead to science fact but so far we have a lot more fiction about getting to Mars than fact. Rather than a mania for Mars, we suggest this mantra: Moon then Mars, Moon then Mars, Moon then Mars.