By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 5, 2006; A01
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.
The NASA plan grew out of President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, which was announced in 2004 and calls for sending astronauts back to the moon and later to Mars. Congress almost unanimously embraced the general plan last year in an authorization bill, but questions remain about its funding. NASA is counting on redirecting billions of dollars from the space shuttle and international space station programs to fund development of a new spaceship, but some critics have complained that the agency is already cutting back its science programs to pay for the moon-Mars project.
It seems appropriate that the space agency is aiming for the moon's south pole, because NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin is fond of likening the lunar project to the exploration of Antarctica. Adventurers first reached Earth's South Pole in the early 20th century, but it wasn't until the 1950s that researchers returned and years later before they established permanent, year-round settlements.
NASA plans to send a robot lander to the moon in 2010 to look for good settlement sites. One of the top candidates now is near the Shackleton Crater (named, fittingly, for Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton), near the south pole, but NASA officials said their plans will evolve based on what they learn from rovers and satellites.
The new lunar plan harks back to NASA's Apollo era, when six missions landed on the moon between 1969 and 1972. But unlike Apollo's spacecraft, the new space transport being developed -- the Ares I rocket and Orion capsule -- will have a lander designed for reuse and to serve as a kind of "pickup truck," according to Horowitz. The plan also calls for the development of a pressurized rover that would allow astronauts to ride around the moon without wearing cumbersome spacesuits.
The first test flight of the Ares rocket is scheduled for 2009, and the first manned flight of the Orion is scheduled for 2014.
While NASA is counting on international support and funds to make the lunar settlement possible, the track record for international cooperation in space is mixed. The space station -- which was initially conceived and designed by the United States -- has taken far longer to assemble than planned, and at a far greater cost. Some of the 14 international partners have also chafed over American priorities for the station -- a situation that Dale said NASA hopes to avoid in the moon mission by bringing in partners very early in the planning process.
John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, commended NASA for undertaking a "bottom-up" assessment of the project. He said the program seems to have broad support in Congress, though it will probably get more scrutiny now with Democrats in charge.
"The basic assumption in Congress," Logsdon said, "is that this is the way to go."