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In a welcome outbreak of realism – underlined by US vice-president Mike Pence’s latest call for American boots on the moon – space agencies and rocket firms have been ramping up visions for lunar bases.

The good news is that this apparently kicks the fashionable but faintly absurd idea of attempting to colonise Mars ahead of the moon into the long grass. There have been mounting doubts about NASA’s stated aim of getting humans on the Red Planet first, in the 2030s.

What were they thinking of? The idea of people on Mars as a priority found favour a decade ago when some space experts, including the Planetary Society, began pushing the unconvincing notion of Mars before the moon.

It added up to this odd statement: we should forget about learning how to live on another world by doing so on our nearby moon, where we can iron out the huge technical, social and psychological challenges of habitat life just three days away.

Instead, they opined, head straight for the surface of Mars, a six-month, radiation-zapped trip, where crews would be beyond rescue. Notable among them is private rocket company SpaceX and its wannabe Martian boss Elon Musk, who is on record as saying he “wants to die on Mars but not on impact”.

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Category: Science