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Moon Base Announced by NASA

John Roach
for National Geographic News
December 4, 2006
 
NASA plans to construct a solar-powered outpost at one the moon's poles, officials with the U.S. space agency announced today.

The lunar base is expected to be permanently staffed by 2024.

The outpost concept was chosen over a competing strategy similar to the 1960s and '70s Apollo program—a series of brief trips to the moon.

The moon base will allow for sustained human presence on the moon's surface and help the agency prepare for future missions to Mars and beyond, explained NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale.

"It also enables global partnerships, allows for maturation of in situ resource utilization, and results in a path that is much quicker in terms of future exploration," Dale said at a press conference.

The announcement was part of NASA's congressionally mandated strategy to meet U.S. President George W. Bush's "Vision for U.S. Space Exploration," a plan outlined in 2004.

(Related: "NASA Budget Diverts Funds From Science to Spaceships" [February 8, 2006].)

The Bush plan includes returning humans to the moon no later than 2020. The goal is to take advantage of the moon's resources and to establish a launching point for further explorations.

(Photo gallery: "NASA's New Mission to the Moon.")

Dale added that the space agency is looking to international partners in the private and public sectors to participate in the construction and use of the moon base.

Polar Base

Once Dale and more than a thousand experts from 14 countries had decided to build a base, the obvious question was where.

"What we're looking at is polar locations—both the north pole and south pole," she said.

The moon's poles are believed to be bathed in near constant sunlight, which should allow for solar power generation.

In addition, polar temperatures are relatively moderate. Other lunar regions tend to fluctuate between extreme heat and cold.

Furthermore, the poles contain craters whose slopes may be permanently in the shadows—an indication that water ice and other potentially useful chemicals may be available.

"It's also interesting to note that we know very little about the poles on the moon. In fact, we know more about Mars," said Scott Horowitz, associate administrator for NASA's Exploration Systems Missions Directorate.

Doug Cooke, deputy associate administrator for the directorate, said one potential location is at the edge of Shackleton Crater. Located at the south pole, the crater is sunlit 75 to 80 percent of the time.

"And it is adjacent to a permanently dark region where there are potentially volatiles"—substances such as water ice, which would likely evaporate if exposed to much sunlight—"that we can extract and use," he said.

The potential site, he added, is about the size of the Washington Mall, which measures about 0.9 square mile (2.4 square kilometers).

Moon Lander

NASA envisions using an all-purpose lander that maximizes the amount of cargo that can be shipped to the moon in a single trip, Cooke said.

Horowitz likened the lander, which is in the preliminary design stages, to a pickup truck.

"You can put whatever you want in the bed. You take it to wherever you want, and so you can deliver cargo, crew [and] do it robotically [or] do it with humans onboard. These are the types of things we are looking for," he said.

"What you can put on the surface allows you to develop a capability much more quickly. The more you can land, the better it is."

The current plan envisions incremental base construction beginning in 2020 with four-person crews making seven-day visits to the moon until their basic necessities are in place.

"It will probably take several years—probably into the 2024 timeframe—before you see a fully functional base where you could have a continual presence with rotating crews like we have on the International Space Station today," Horowitz said.

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