A Dec. 5 article incorrectly referred to the 'dark side' of the moon instead of the 'far side.' The moon has no permanently dark side, but its rotation keeps the same side constantly facing Earth. The far side is ideal for astronomy because it is shielded from most manmade radio interference.
NASA Plans Lunar Outpost
Tuesday, December 5, 2006
NASA unveiled plans yesterday to set up a small and ultimately self-sustaining settlement of astronauts at the south pole of the moon sometime around 2020 -- the first step in an ambitious plan to resume manned exploration of the solar system.
The long-awaited proposal envisions initial stays of a week by four-person crews, followed by gradually longer visits until power and other supplies are in place to make a permanent presence possible by 2024.
The effort was presented as an unprecedented mission to learn about the moon and places beyond, as well as an integral part of a long-range plan to send astronauts to Mars. The moon settlement would ultimately be a way station for space travelers headed onward, and would provide not only a haven but also hydrogen and oxygen mined from the lunar surface to make water and rocket fuel.
NASA officials declined to put a price tag on what will clearly be an extremely expensive venture. But they said that with help from international partners and perhaps space businesses, the agency would have sufficient funds to undertake the plan without any dramatic infusion of new money.
If the project goes ahead as planned, it would return humans to the moon for the first time since 1972.
NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale said the agency met with hundreds of scientists, potential international partners and space businesses over the past year to discuss lunar options -- most pressingly, whether the plan should be based around a series of sorties to the moon or a permanent outpost and later settlement. The conclusion, she said, was that an outpost would be the best both for science and to prepare for exploration deeper into space.
Scott Horowitz, chief of lunar exploration, said: "The 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. It's a very, very big decision, and it's one of the few where I've seen the scientific community and the engineering community actually agree on anything."
Dale said that once the team endorsed the concept of an outpost, which would be about the size of the Mall, the next debate was over where to put it, with a focus on either of the moon's poles.
"Conditions at the south pole appear to be more moderate and safer," she said. The south pole is almost constantly bathed in light and would be an ideal place to set up solar-power collectors for an electrical system -- a precondition for achieving the kind of "living off the land" that NASA is aiming for.
Horowitz also said the polar sites are scientifically exciting because "we don't know as much about the lunar poles as we know about Mars." Officials said the area around the south pole has craters that probably hold volatile gases that could be collected for commercial purposes. Highest on the list of possible resources is helium-3, a form of the gas seldom found on Earth that could be well suited for nuclear power fuel.
The rockets and space capsules that will take astronauts back to the moon will be exclusively American, but Dale said the mission envisions and needs the cooperation of other nations. As part of the process, she said, NASA officials met with representatives from the European Space Agency and the national space agencies of Australia, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Russia, South Korea and Ukraine.
Dale said she will travel extensively next year to these nations and others to see how they might participate. One project she mentioned as attractive to NASA and possibly others is the deployment of an array of telescopes on the dark side of the moon to see far into the universe.