NASA focuses on lunar base concepts for exploration
BY WILLIAM HARWOOD
STORY WRITTEN FOR CBS NEWS "SPACE PLACE" & USED WITH PERMISSION
Posted: December 4, 2006
NASA's return to the moon next decade will be focused on establishing a permanent base near one of the lunar poles to take advantage of near-constant sunlight for solar power, agency officials said today.
Manned flights to the moon are targeted to begin in the 2020 timeframe, using a lander that initially will carry four-person teams to the moon's surface for week-long stays.
Building up infrastructure in a step-by-step fashion, planners expect enough power and resources to be available within a few years to support a full-time base served by rotating crews of astronauts who will spend up to six months at a time on the moon.
"The first lunar missions will deliver four astronauts to the surface of the moon," said Scott Horowitz, a former shuttle commander who now serves as associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.
"So right away on those initial missions, we're going to have four people for short periods of time until we build up the base," he said. "It'll 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."
While no final decisions have been made, engineers are focusing on the moon's polar regions as potential sites for a lunar base because sunlight is available to drive solar energy production and because resources are believed to be available that might one day be used to produce air, rocket fuel and other materials.
A permanent lunar base is a central theme in NASA's new Global Exploration Strategy, the result of a series of discussions involving 14 international space agencies, aerospace contractors, engineers and scientists to help flesh out President Bush's so-called "vision for space exploration."
That vision, unveiled by the president in a January 2004 address at NASA headquarters in Washington, calls for the agency to complete the international space station and retire the shuttle by 2010 and to develop a new manned spacecraft system that can carry astronauts to and from the station and eventually, to the moon.
The president called for returning astronauts to the moon by 2020 as a critical first step toward eventual manned flights to Mars.
Based on the input of participants in the Global Exploration Strategy discussions, a NASA group known as the Lunar Architecture Team concluded "the most advantageous approach is to develop a solar-powered lunar base and to locate it near one of the poles of the moon," according to a NASA statement.
"With such an outpost, NASA can learn to use the moon's natural resources to live off the land, make preparations for a journey to Mars, conduct a wide variety of scientific investigations and encourage international participation."
Horowitz said the emerging architecture "doesn't sound like a big deal," but "we're going to go after a lunar base."
"So lunar base will be a central theme in our going forward plan for going back to the moon in preparation to go to Mars and beyond," he told reporters. "It's a very, very big decision. it's one of the few where I've seen the scientific community and the engineering community actually agree on anything.
"We finally have a place that is very interesting from an operational and engineering perspective, because of continual sunlight, because of the ability to maybe get after materials on the moon, and also (because there are) such interesting scientific sites that are near the poles.
"It's also interesting to note that we know very little about the poles on the moon," he added. "In fact, we know more about Mars than we know about the poles of the moon. So it's really important that we get the information from the upcoming (unmanned) orbiters that are going to the moon."
As the space shuttle program winds down, the exploration program will ramp up. NASA plans to launch an unmanned reconnaissance orbiter in 2008 and to begin test flights of the new Ares 1 rocket, the launcher that will propel the new Orion manned spacecraft into low-Earth orbit, in 2009.
The first manned flight of Orion is targeted for 2014 with first flight of a new unmanned heavy-lift launch vehicle some time in the later half of the next decade. The heavy lifter will be used to launch the still-undefined lander that will carry astronauts from lunar orbit to the moon's surface.
"A basic high-level requirement for the lander system is to be able to go anywhere on the moon," Horowitz said. "Just because we're going to (build) a base doesn't mean that every single sortie will go to the base. We may find something very interesting to go to an equatorial site in the future, the backside of the moon, I don't know.
"We are looking at all the possibilities. Of course, we're going to focus our resources on handling the places of most interest. But we do have a system that has the basic capability to launch fairly large masses, to be able to send a lander to just about anywhere on the surface of the moon whenever we like. So we're making sure we have the flexibility and as we get more knowledge, we're going to be able to go do different things."