The problem of getting stuff to the moon was big, and they had four ideas as to get everything they wanted up there, then everything they wanted back:
- Big ol' rocket going up there, landing, taking off again, which wouldn't work because it'd take a rocket that makes Saturn 5 look like a bottle rocket, and landing a Saturn 5 and taking off again is a dicey situation.
- Sending everything up in pieces, assembling it and sending it the moon. You have the issues of landing and taking off a big rocket from the moon, plus having to build the infrastructure in space to build things.
- Assembling everything in space, then sending it all to the moon, where there's a command ship that has the power to get back to Earth and a landing ship that has the power to get back to orbit after landing. The problem here is that it takes infrastructure to build in space, and NASA was working under a hard deadline ("Before this decade is out...").
- Big rocket on Earth, command module and lander around Moon. You may recognize this.
Amongst the reasons why the moon missions stopped is that each time they went to the moon, they had to have it all together here, while if they had built the infrastructure, it'd require occasional smaller rockets getting raw materials up to orbit, get them assembled, and start moving back and forth. If something is just going between two orbits (the moon's and the earth's, for example), it doesn't have to be built to withstand the same sort of tolerences it'd need to enter a gravity well or an atmosphere. As a metaphor, we take a bus to the airport/orbit, take an airplane/dedicated space-bound craft to the destination, then take another bus to the surface/hotel/whatever. This is an infrastructure for continuing transportation.
So, we have the moon. Does it have raw materials that we could use to make rocket fuel? Rockets? Anything like that? Not so much. It has gravity, but if we're making the crafts that take us to Mars, they're going to have a big craft staying in orbit and individual landers. (Zubrin has greater plans for all this, and if you want details, check here.) If we're going to do this, why build it in a place where it'll have to take off? Build it in an orbiting drydock. If we're going to have to ship up every atom going into the thing, why pack it off to the moon when it is cheaper and easier to bump it to orbit. We can take substantial payloads into space. We're getting to the point where we can build things in space. (Not there yet; ISS is built on Earth, then stuck together like a Habitrail in orbit, which I'd bet is how we put together the first ship we send to Mars.)
Beyond that, there are a lot of questions we have about the trip. It'll take 2 years to get there, and two years to get back. During that time, there is nothing we can do for them to help. If we send people to land on Mars, is there any way we can have them land there without being too weakened by microgravity to even stand? Is there any way to be sure that this group of people, the cream of the crop of their various fields, won't be driven by whatever to want to kill each other or themselves by the time they get there? Speaking of crops, how do we feed 'em? 5 years of turkey in a tube isn't healthy, and is likely considered cruel and unusual punishment. And can we get 5-year lifespans out of what we put together out there? Mir had a lifespan much longer than anyone in Star City ever thought it could have. The way to answer these questions is by orbiting people, as they need to be in microgravity for this. And in near-earth orbit, if they need to bail, they're a controlled fall away from home.
[Suggesting that the space program in it's classic formation, Mercury->Gemini->Apollo, is anything but an extension of the Cold War, saying that since the US can send rockets to the Moon, any rockets sent to the Kremlin would get there without problem, is incredibly naive. The same with the Olympics, saying "We have this very powerful|fast|strong|agile person who won many gold medals. Therefore, we're better than those guys." This is why the US didn't go to Moscow and the Soviet union didn't go to L.A.]
There are reasons to go back to the moon. The geological study of the moon is incomplete, so while we have all . But really, having the moon be a critical part of any trip to Mars is like having Ketchum, Idaho, be a critical part of every trip between New York and Los Angeles. It's not on the way. There's no good reason for it. Nobody on the trip really wants to go there. Return to the Moon? Sure, but don't excuse Mars on it.
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