NASA "On Track" for 2020 Human Moon Mission

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
December 11, 2007
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."

Robotic Missions

To prepare for the lunar base, NASA plans to send up a new robotic spacecraft to survey the moon.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is scheduled for launch October 28, 2008.

The craft will map the moon's surface from some 30 miles (50 kilometers) aloft, searching for safe landing and outpost sites as well as valuable resources, such as water ice and a variety of minerals.

LRO will also study how radiation in space might impact astronauts who will spend far more time on the moon than previous visitors.

In addition, the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS)—which launches with LRO—will slam into the moon, creating two large plumes that will aid the search for lunar water ice.

LCROSS's impact will likely occur in early 2009, and the resulting sprays should be visible from Earth via telescopes and other instruments.

The event should produce what Walz called "some pyrotechnics for the inauguration" of the new U.S. president—who may influence funding for the sometimes-controversial Constellation Program.

Right now the full mission is slated to cost $104 billion (U.S.).

Next-Gen Shuttle

Included in the cost is development of a new spacecraft dubbed Orion that is meant to carry people to the lunar surface.

The reusable craft will look more like an Apollo capsule than a space shuttle, but scientists still haven't determined how it will land back on Earth.

Orion's first few returns are expected to be Apollo-like ocean splashdowns, which will enable the mission team to fully test navigation while keeping the crew safe.

"The consequences of landing short, in the western United States, [would be] pretty grim," said Constellation program manager Jeff Hanley.

But Orion must also have the ability to make a safe ground landing.

In designing this safety backup, Hanley suggested that his team might develop a vehicle for which ground landings would become the preferred way to return to Earth.

Overall, Constellation scientists hope to match and even exceed the great triumphs of the Apollo program, which included the Apollo 11 voyage that first put a human on the moon.

But they are also planning to avoid some of the program's great tragedies—such as the Apollo 1 launchpad fire that claimed the lives of three astronauts.

A New Mexico launch pad, currently under construction, will be used to test abort systems that can blast a crew to a height of a mile (1.6 kilometers) and return them safely to Earth with three large parachutes.

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