One of the tasks not often mentioned by the media facing President-elect Donald Trump is what to do about NASA and its programs. The change of administrations provides an opportunity to announce a new goal for America’s Space program, to return astronauts to the moon by the end of Trump’s second term, the year 2024.

The Trump transition team has already indicated that some big changes are in store for the space agency.

The coming administration will emphasize space exploration, setting a goal to explore the entire solar system with astronauts by the end of the century. NASA will pursue more public/private partnerships to carry this goal out.

One decision that has to be made pretty early is what to do about the current Journey to Mars. The effort, while beguiling, is underfunded and has the vague goal of getting astronaut boots on the ground of Mars by the 2030s without much of a notion of how to get there.

One of the controversial aspects of the Mars effort is that Americans would not return to the moon first. NASA would set up deep space stations in cis-lunar space in order to test technologies needed for the voyage to the Red Planet.

A return to the moon would actually complement rather than conflict with the long term Mars goal. Ice, which has been discovered at the moon’s poles, can be refined into rocket fuel.

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Spacecraft headed for Mars would top off propellant from lunar resources before braving the hazards of interplanetary space, eliminating the need to bring fuel all the way from Earth. The cost and scope of the Journey to Mars would be greatly reduced.

An early return to the moon would have a number of other benefits.

A back to the moon effort, especially if it involved international partners, could enhance American prestige and facilitate the use of soft power.

The European Space Agency is already keen on establishing a “Moon Village” where nations and private companies would gather for mutual support.

A lunar return has a great many commercial possibilities. NASA is already building two elements of a lunar architecture, the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System. The commercial sector could build landing craft and habitats and own them in the same manner as Boeing and SpaceX will operate and own Earth-to low-Earth-orbit spacecraft under the commercial crew program.

Companies like Moon Express are also interested in mining the moon for its resources.

The moon not only serves as a laboratory for studying geology and geophysics but is a stable platform for observatories that could study the universe as never before.

An early return to the moon would be inspirational for young people, causing an incentive for going into STEM education, increasing the numbers of scientists and engineers who can help address a host of problems.

One other advantage that returning to the moon has is that it can happen within a few years rather than in the distant future, like the Journey to Mars. But that means that NASA and commercial and international partners have to be serious about landing on the moon by the year 2024, the idea being that doing the thing sooner rather than later would prove the seriousness of the undertaking.

Also, a lunar landing cannot be seen as a one-shot stunt, but rather as a milestone in the effort to bring the moon and the riches and opportunities it represents into the control of those people making the effort.

The Trump vision of exploring the entire solar system by the end of the 21st century is a compelling one, but it may be hard to sustain, given the ebb and flow of political fashion. Going back to the moon would be a first step in making that vision a reality.

Donald Trump should find the moon particularly attractive, as it would be the biggest real estate deal in history, accessing and developing what was once called “magnificent desolation” for economic and scientific benefit. To use one of the incoming president’s favorite phrases, that would be huge.

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