for National Geographic News
NASA officials announced yesterday that they are on track to return humans to the moon by 2020 and establish a base for exploration of the lunar surface and beyond.
"Our job is to build towns on the moon and eventually put footprints next to tire prints on Mars," Rick Gilbrech, of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD), told reporters during a Monday teleconference.
As part of NASA's Constellation Program, a prototype of the first solar-powered 'lunar village' is already rising at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, the experts reported.
(Read "Moon Base Announced by NASA" [December 4, 2006].)
Inflatable living and working quarters for astronauts will be tested in the extreme weather and isolation at the bottom of the world for 13 months beginning January 2008.
The structures—which resemble 'moon-bounce' playhouses—are lightweight, durable, and easily erected so they can be moved from place to place.
The lunar outpost is being touted as a critical stepping-stone for space exploration.
"Somebody someday certainly will go to Mars," said veteran astronaut Carl Walz, now director of advanced capabilities for ESMD.
"If you look back at Apollo, it was preceded by [NASA's human spaceflight projects] Mercury and Gemini. That was an incremental buildup in capability," he said.
"[The International Space Station] is our Mercury for going to Mars. The lunar outpost is our Gemini. And, of course, going to Mars is the ultimate Apollo for this generation."
To prepare for the lunar base, NASA plans to send up a new robotic spacecraft to survey the moon.
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