One group of people that is very excited at the prospect of a Trump inspired push beyond low-Earth orbit is the scientific community. The 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference recently met in the Woodlands, a planned community north of Houston, to discuss the latest findings in space science and to debate the future direction of the American space program. The discussion revolved around the question of whether to continue on NASA’s Journey to Mars or to divert to the moon, as some inside the Trump administration seem to favor. According to a story in Scientific America by Leonard David, the moon first faction had the better argument.

People who want to go back to the moon first are not against going to Mars. Indeed, as the Scientists at the Woodlands Conference argued, the moon provides the key to exploring Mars with a more than a “flags and footsteps” venture that would ultimately be unsustainable.

The moon is rich in resources, especially water that can be refined into rocket fuel, which could make going to Mars cheaper and easier. Other materials, such as Helium 3, could help jump-start a space-based economy that would make going to space profitable and help pay for missions to Mars.

Going to Mars directly, on the other hand, would be an expensive and complicated project. The latest NASA blueprint for going to Mars involves an old idea of sending a spacecraft on a flyby mission to both Venus and then Mars, without touching down on either planet.

The mission could test a lot of technologies needed for interplanetary flight, propulsion, life support, and so on. The actual landing on Mars would take place sometime later in the 2030s.

The Mars First faction didn’t have an excellent counter argument, except to point to Elon Musk’s plan to build giant spacecraft that could bring people to the Red Planet 100 at a time to build a colony.

How realistic Musk’s plan, absent a massive investment in resources, is a matter that is open to debate. The upshot is, the moon seems to be the superior next destination, partly because it makes all the rest more possible.