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Moon vs. Mars debate
Moon Express chairman Naveen Jain gestures during a debate with Planetary Resources’ Chris Lewicki and space policy analyst John Logsdon, at right. The Economist’s deputy editor, Tom Standage, stands in as moderator at left. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

SpaceX founder Elon Musk has famously said he’d like to die on Mars — “just not on impact.” But where will humans live in space? That was the focus of a good-natured debate that took place at this week’s “New Space Age” conference at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

Chris Lewicki, president and CEO of Redmond, Wash.-based Planetary Resources, took up the case for going to asteroids and Mars. Seattle-area entrepreneur Naveen Jain, co-founder and chairman of Florida-based Moon Express, spoke for the moon.

And John Logsdon, retired director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, argued for the null hypothesis: that humans would, by and large, stick with Earth for the foreseeable future.

Jain put in the most hand-wavingly flamboyant performance.

“Moon has all the resources that we need,” he said. “It has water. And water is the beginning of the things you can do, right? You can now have hydrogen and oxygen.”

He noted that Japanese researchers recently identified a huge lava tube on the moon that could house a underground base, protected from surface radiation and meteorite impacts.

“You could have a whole New York inside it, with pumping oxygen and water there,” Jain said.

Researchers might even be able to edit the human genome to provide the ability to convert space radiation into useful energy, Jain said: “Not only will we become completely radiation-resistant, in the evening, you’ll be holding the hand of your honey and say, ‘Honey, you want to go for a walk and get some radiation, and that will be our dinner.’ ”

Lewicki took issue with the idea that the moon has all the resources that settlers will need. It’s not clear exactly how much water ice is mixed into lunar soil, or how easy it’d be to extract it, he said.

Getting resources from near-Earth asteroids would be much easier, said Lewicki, whose company aims to start mining asteroids sometime in the next decade.

“The asteroids are the lowest-hanging fruit in the solar system from a resource standpoint,” he said. Those resources could facilitate moving on to Mars.

But why make the trip? Logsdon took issue with the vision of having millions of people living and working in space, which has been advanced by Musk as well as by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos.

“What’s the business case for a Martian economy? … A million-person city? Why? Who would want to do that?” Logsdon said.

He acknowledged that there will probably be bases built on the moon as well as Mars, but said they’d be more along the lines of Antarctic outposts than an underground metropolis.

“There’s a more plausible case for the economics of the moon than for Mars, but it’s a tenuous case,” Logsdon said.

Read more: Vice president vows return to the moon and ‘boots on Mars’

During the discussion, Earth2Orbit founder Susmita Mohanty spoke up for looking beyond the economics.

“I think we needed a more diverse panel,” she said. “I hear this ‘Let’s monetize the hell out of Earth, let’s monetize the hell out of the moon, let’s monetize the hell out of Mars.’ You know, I want to go live on other planets for more than just business purposes.”

In the end, the conference crowd leaned toward Lewicki’s portfolio of asteroids and Mars as the most attractive choice, but even Lewicki admitted that the real-world path beyond Earth orbit would be more complex than a “moon vs. Mars” fork in the road.

“The context of what we’re having a fun discussion about is a false choice,” he said. “It’s like arguing, ‘Which city is the better city, New York or Paris? Choose one. The other one doesn’t exist.’ We’ve never had to make that choice in our history. … The correct answer is ‘all of the above.’ ”

Correction for 10:55 a.m. PT Nov. 11: A previous version of this report provided an incorrect title for Naveen Jain, who is chairman of Moon Express.

GeekWire was one of the media sponsors of The Economist’s “New Space Age” conference. For videos from the conference, check out the Facebook page for The Economist Events.

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