NASA plans to set up a small and ultimately self-sustaining settlement of astronauts on the south pole of the moon around 2020. This is the first step in an ambitious plan to resume manned exploration of the solar system.
Initial base will harbor four-person crews, and then gradually longer visits until power and other resources are in place to make a permanent presence possible by 2024. The base will act as an experimental ground for new technology which will hopefully lead to future travel to Mars. It would provide not only safe haven but also hydrogen and oxygen to achieve water and rocket fuel.
This will be an extremely expensive venture, but NASA will ask collaboration from international partners and perhaps commercial space businesses. The last time when man set foot on the Moon was
in 1972, when the last Apollo mission landed.
The first colonists will cruise the Moon surface in a new-generation lunar lander that will function like a low-gravity pickup truck, possibly journeying to the dark side to build the most ambitious collection of observatories ever constructed. "We will begin with short missions. Then we will build up to the point where we are staying 180 days, and then we will have a permanent presence," said Doug Cooke, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems. "The south pole in particular is constantly bathed in light and would be an ideal place to collect solar power, plus the site has possible resources to mine nearby," Cooke said.
Previous NASA moon missions detected amounts of hydrogen at both poles. This could be traced to hidden ice deposits, a potential source of water for moon colonists, but there are still doubts about it. The area around the lunar south pole has craters that likely emit volatile gases, like helium-3, a form of the gas seldom found on Earth, but possibly well suited as a nuclear-power fuel, that could be collected for commercial purposes.
The rockets and space capsule that would take astronauts back to the moon would be American, but the crew will be international, NASA officials cooperating with representatives from the European Space Agency and the national space agencies of Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, England, India, Italy, Russia, South Korea and the Ukraine. To free up money to carry out the vision, NASA will mothball the space shuttle by 2010.
Some space scientists say manned exploration is an expensive mission whose benefits are too unclear at a time when robots can do the same tasks far more cheaply.
2008: Launch of Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a mapping mission to determine where to build the lunar base.
2009: A first test of one of the lunar spaceships.
2010: NASA to mothball the space shuttle.
2014: First manned test flight of the Orion crew exploration vehicle, but no moon landing.
2020: Begin setup of settlement of astronauts on the south pole of the moon.
2024: Permanent base could be operational.