NASA has announced plans to establish a permanently-occupied lunar base with manned missions starting in 2020, a key step in further human exploration of the solar system.
The project, which would send humans back to the lunar surface for the first time since 1972, is a long-term joint effort of 14 of the world's space agencies, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said Monday.
According to the current plan, which NASA described as a "blueprint for a return to the moon," robots would travel to the lunar surface ahead of manned missions to study the best landing sites and determine what natural resources would be available.
Then, starting in 2020, four-person crews bringing lunar exploration vehicles would be dispatched on a series of week-long missions to build living quarters equipped with their own power units.
Once permanent housing is established the program envisions lunar missions lasting 180 days.
NASA plans to set up a solar-powered base on one of the moon's poles that, once construction is completed, could serve as a forward base for manned missions to Mars.
"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 range of scientific investigations and encourage international participation," NASA said.
In 2004, US President George W. Bush had raised the idea of sending a manned exploratory mission to the red planet.
To help set out the goals of the lunar station, NASA consulted more than 1,000 experts. NASA officials talked to members of 13 other space agencies — including those of China, India, Russia and Ukraine — as well as experts from academic, public and private groups, and business interests.
This strategy will be "making optimum use of globally available knowledge and resources to help energize a coordinated effort that will propel us into this new age of discovery and exploration," said NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale.
NASA is developing a new crew capsule, the Orion, and new rocket engines, the Ares, for the mission. Test flights for the new rockets are scheduled for within two and a half years, and the Orion capsule is scheduled to be first flown around 2012.
In the meantime the space agency plans using the current space shuttle fleet until it is retired in 2010, with a focus on completing the building of the International Space Station.
NASA, Russia and the European Space Agency are currently constructing the ISS, in orbit around the Earth, which could itself be a springboard and operations base for the moon program.
I really am looking forward to this! Just imagine how much more we will learn about the moon and surviving in space! It's going to be good practice for Mars.
Check out the really cool NASA feature: How We'll Get Back to the Moon!
NASA is looking at the possibility of locating the first Moon Base on a crater rim at the South pole of the Moon.