Picture a sign post next to a remote building: Last gas for the next 50 million miles. A second sign sits beneath it, clarifying the location: Next stop, Mars.
Last week, President Obama signed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which charts the space agency's trajectory and will shape the nation’s science, aerospace and information technology development for decades to come. And the moon is not a key factor in the plan.
"I just have to say pretty bluntly -- we've been there before," Obama told reporters in April when critics first argued that the moon should not be sidelined. "There's a lot more space to explore and a lot more to learn when we do," he said.
You'll hear nothing but agreement from Buzz Aldrin -- the second man to step on the moon (but the first to leave, he jokes). Aldrin argues that while putting Americans back on the moon is misguided, our lunar sibling is still important for the next big project NASA will tackle: Mars.
"A unified space exploration policy is what is needed for the U.S.," Aldrin told FoxNews.com.
Aldrin believes NASA should move in stages toward a manned mission to Mars -- and ultimately colonization on or near the Red Planet -- by building outer space fuel stations and industrializing the moon. NASA has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars researching such projects, he noted, an investment that should be utilized -- as recommended by Norm Augustine, former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board and chairman of the Review of the U.S. Space Flight Plans Committee.
"The U.S. has the most experience in the world, of any nation, in dealing with the moon," he told FoxNews.com. "It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that flexibility is needed here."
Aldrin endorses the formation of an International Lunar Development Corporation to begin commercial enterprises on the moon. And a broad collation of governments -- Russia, China, India, the U.S., and others -- should form this quasigovernmental organization, which would help private enterprises capitalize on the lunar resources. Together, these nations can build that lunar gas station.
"Who should send up the propellant? China, India, Europe. We’re going to Mars, we need propellant. And we could buy propellant from them at our moon gas station," he told Vanity Fair in June.
There are real commercial activities that private enterprises could develop on the moon as well: Helium 3 can be mined, and heavy metal meteorites could be a source of rare earth metals. And the presence of water ice would make great rocket fuel -- and rocket fuel is gets us to Mars. Aldrin thinks that base could form part of a transportation infrastructure that would enable us to get to near Earth objects such as asteroids, Martian moon Phobos, even Mars itself and beyond.
The space legend, who is launching a new think tank called U.S.S. Enterprise -- which stands for Unified, Strategic, Space Enterprise -- believes NASA should think about all of the planets for the most efficient travel across the solar system. And a key item for America should be a permanent base on Phobos.
"Every twenty-six months, there’s a window of going to Mars that may last for about a month or so. It just so happens that there’s an opportunity to put a habitat on Mars in the fall of 2022," he told Vanity Fair. "In the spring of 2025, I send a crew and they stay for a year and a half, and then I bring them back. I send another crew in ‘27 and then I bring them back. I send another crew there in ‘29, and they stay. And then in ‘31 I send six more people, three to one of the moons of Mars and three directly to Mars, and now I’ve got nine people there. I can add six every twenty-six months," he said.
The ultimate goal: a permanent presence on Mars, enabled by a system of spacecraft that cycle from Earth to Mars and back. A permanent habitation served by a permanent transportation system.
In this dream, a lunar base is useful, but merely a means to an end, Aldrin told FoxNews.com.
"For decades, we’ve been misdefining our transitional space programs," Aldrin said. "A vision like in the early days of the space race showing the logical progression from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo is what is needed today to show why we need to go to Mars -- and how we will get there."
Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.