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NASA's budget focus: Moon, Mars, or ISS?

The space agency's future is hanging in the balance. Soon the Obama administration will need to decide its fate. What type of mission should take priority?

Should we be going to the Red Planet next?

If you had to choose the subject of NASA's attention over the next decade, what would you pick? Would you want to push the space agency to go back to the moon? Would you want it to devote its budget toward a human mission to Mars?

The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, a panel ordered to chart the future of the U.S. space program, is trying to narrow those possibilities. So far, the group has come up with several ideas for how NASA should focus its resources (PDF).

For starters, one option the panel has suggested would see NASA focus on maintaining the International Space Station through 2020, rather than shuttering its ISS operations at the end of 2015, as planned. Another option is to get astronauts back to the moon for the first time since the Apollo program.

Another choice calls for astronauts to explore deep space, eventually traveling to Mars' moons. The panel also crafted an option that would see NASA maintain extended stays on Earth's moon. It would enable astronauts to travel to different areas of the lunar landscape, rather than stick to one location.

But perhaps the most compelling option the panel made public is an astronaut-attended trip to Mars. It said that if all of NASA's focus and government funding is allocated to going to Mars, it might be possible.

CNET News Poll

Moon, Mars, or ISS?
On what do you think NASA should focus its budget?

La luna. I'd like to see another moon landing on TV.
The Red Planet. Mars exploration is more important.
The space station. We've already made a big commitment to it; why stop?
There are better things into which NASA should pour its resources.

View results

Budget costs are an obvious concern and a key determining factor in what plan NASA will follow, going forward. Panel member Norman Augustine, the former chief executive of Lockheed Martin, told The New York Times that none of the options would feature "an exorbitant price tag."

That should make legislators happy. But that alone won't determine NASA's future.

Moon or Mars?
The idea of going to the moon is interesting. On one hand, astronauts have already explored the moon somewhat. On the other, there is so much about the lunar landscape that we just haven't seen or learned.

Mars is the great unknown, at least when it comes to actual astronaut exploration. Speculation abounds over its importance to our understanding of Earth's existence. Was it once inhabited? Does it hold secrets to our past? Those are questions that likely can be more easily addressed through human exploration than by rover visits.

So as NASA enters the next chapter in its storied history, its fate will soon be known. Will it plug away in low orbit? Will it have a renewed drive to go to the moon? Or will it decide to focus on Mars?

At this point, we don't know. But we can have our voices heard. So, where would you like to see NASA go? Is the moon for you? Or would you rather head to Mars? Let us know in the comments below and in the poll above.

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