Dr. Robert Zubrin has been one of the most fervent advocates of sending humans to Mars ever since he developed the Mars Direct concept in the 1990s, described in detail in his book “The Case for Mars.” As a result, he has tended to denigrate the idea of returning to the moon, before going to Mars or at all. However, in a new article in Space News, Zubrin seems to have bowed to the inevitable and has conceded that a return to the moon would be useful, so long as it is done in parallel with the primary goal of going to Mars.

Zubrin does not mention lunar water as a means to facilitate voyages to Mars.

His concept involves creating propellant on the Martian surface rather than on the moon. However, his acknowledgment that going to the moon is useful means an interesting assumption.

He suggests that if he had a heavy lift rocket that can launch six times a year and a Mars expedition would require only three launches of said rocket every two years, then the extra launch opportunities might as well be used to facilitate a moon base.

Mind, Zubrin still does not see a much inherent use for a return to the moon. The virtue he sees is that it keeps NASA busy in between Mars voyages and forces the space agency to use the same hardware to go to Mars as it will going back to the moon. In any case, he sees going to the moon and Mars in parallel as far superior to the current Obama policy.

Mind, what heavy lift rocket is going to launch six times a year is open to question. The heavy lift Space Launch System is said to be only capable of launching once a year, though with sufficient money that rate could be increased. The SpaceX Falcon Heavy and the Blue Origin New Glenn and New Armstrong might achieve higher flight rates as well.

In any case, Zubrin’s article represents something of a breakthrough in the moon vs. Mars debate and should provide encouragement for the development of a consensus Space Policy going forward. The Trump administration is contemplating embarking on a return to the moon in the near term.