Lunar Outpost: NASA unveils plans for a return to the moon

This week, NASA announced that it would begin in 2020 to assemble a human outpost on the moon—most likely at the south pole—and intends to complete the base by 2024. While still sketchy, the plans are the most detailed that the agency has offered since President Bush announced 2 years ago his intention of having astronauts return to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars.

TO THE MOON! A lunar outpost, as envisioned by NASA, might be up and running by 2024. NASA

NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale says that after consulting with more than 1,000 scientists and engineers, the agency decided to build a single lunar base rather than land at several sites, the strategy assumed by the Apollo missions from 1969 to 1972.

In the new plan, astronauts would begin with weeklong visits that would eventually stretch to 6-month stays, officials said on Dec. 4 at a press briefing at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Astronauts would drive a pressurized rover from the base to other destinations. The lunar base could later serve as a training ground for a Mars mission.

NASA scientist Scott Horowitz notes that a region near the moon’s south pole and on the rim of the Shackleton crater is a promising place to land. Because the sun shines on the site 75 to 80 percent of the time, an outpost there could rely on solar power. Moreover, the area is adjacent to a site that lies in perpetual darkness and may therefore contain water ice and other frozen natural resources.

The agency may not make a final decision on a landing site until 2013, after collecting data from several robotic scouting missions, Horowitz says. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter is set for launch in 2008, and a robotic lander is expected to arrive at the moon in 2010.

NASA is designing a four-person vehicle that would replace the space shuttle and carry moonbound astronauts. The target date is 2014 for the first manned flight of the vehicle, which will be lifted into space by a new rocket called Aries 1.

The agency didn’t release a detailed budget for the missions, but it expects to get an infusion of funds after the retirement of the space shuttle and the completion of the International Space Station in 2010.

NASA “has an appropriate level of detail” and has “very logically” winnowed a variety of lunar-return strategies, says John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. “More importantly,” he adds, in making the decision, the agency has consulted widely among space scientists.

At a meeting last week at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, astrophysicists cited several projects that they’d like to see installed on the moon’s surface or in lunar orbit. These include radio telescopes on the moon’s far side, where they would be shielded from earthly radio noise, and huge visible-light telescopes featuring liquid mirrors.

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