NASA IS rocketing toward the country’s next moonshot — or is it Mars shot?

Vice President Pence did his best John F. Kennedy impression last spring when he asked the space agency to achieve the almost impossible: return humans to the lunar surface within five years “by any means necessary.” The mandate seemed unreasonably ambitious; for one thing, those necessary means aren’t nearly as available to NASA today as they were during the Cold War, when all aspects of government were committed to whatever-the-cost victory in the space race. The other problem: Not everyone seems to agree on the goal.

NASA has been here before. President George H.W. Bush wanted to put man back on the moon, and on Mars, too. President Bill Clinton disagreed. President George W. Bush dusted off his father’s plans, envisioning a moon landing that could lay the groundwork for a Mars mission. President Barack Obama canceled that project and told NASA to head to an asteroid and then Mars. President Trump turned the nation’s gaze toward the moon again — and then months later tweeted perplexingly that “NASA should NOT be talking about going to the moon” but rather “Mars (of which the Moon is a part).”

“Mars (of which the Moon is a part)” is either nonsense or exactly what legislators in the House of Representatives seem to have their eye on today: putting humans on the moon only as a jumping-off point to explore the red planet in person. That’s different from the plan NASA is envisioning, despite the president’s contradictory tweets; the agency looks to Mars in the distant future but treats the moon as an end in itself — where it can establish bases on the far side and mine lunar ice, ostensibly for life support and rocket fuel.

There’s a powerful argument that satisfying the human drive to know doesn’t actually require humans. Robots can do lots of exploring for lots less money than it costs to put people on (or float people above) celestial bodies; projects from the Curiosity rover to the Cassini spacecraft and beyond have taught us so. There’s also an argument that the private companies increasingly interested in low-orbit adventuring should be entrusted with as much as they’re able to carry out, to save NASA money and to ensure that exploratory work continues even as the whims of politicians shift. (Disclosure: One of those companies is owned by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, who also owns The Post.)

These shifting whims are the greatest threat to a space program constantly afflicted by whiplash. Preferable as a greater emphasis on robotics might be, leaders are unlikely to stop insisting on going places because we can. These long-term goals are most likely to be achieved if they’re guided by thoughtful science and professional planning, rather than the allure of a potential geopolitical coup or the grievances of constituent contractors. The longer the politicians argue back and forth about the moon vs. Mars, the less likely we are to go to either one.

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