When the United States goes back to the moon in the next decade, what will be different from the Apollo missions of the 1970s?
For one thing, this time, NASA is planning to stay for a long time. Deputy administrator Shana Dale announced that when the U.S. returns to the moon in 2020, it will establish an outpost for a permanent habitat.
"It is the next step--next logical step--in what we do in space in terms of moving beyond low-earth orbit with the ability to go back to the moon, hopefully on to Mars and other destinations," she said.
The Apollo missions were quick sorties to gather samples and bring them back to Earth. Scott Horowitz, who leads the lunar exploration planning, says the next phase of moon exploration will still include short trips, but the primary mission will be building a habitat.
The astronauts will ride an Ares 1 launch vehicle in an Orion crew capsule. The Ares launch system will carry a lunar lander plus modules which will become a habitat that can house four astronauts as early as 2020, and double the number in 2024.
This habitat will probably be located on one of the moon's poles because of constant sunlight that will provide solar power to operate the habitat. The rim of Shackleton crater, at the lunar south pole, is particularly attractive because there may be ice hidden in the soil there. It could be useful, not just for drinking water, but could be broken down to generate oxygen and hydrogen-based rocket fuel.
Dale says NASA definitely has a preference for the south pole, but a final decision has not been made. "That determination won't be made until we get data back from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which will be making detailed maps of the moon." LRO is a probe slated for launch in 2008.
Dale added that NASA is considering the eventual use of nuclear power on the moon, something sure to be controversial.
While plans to return to the moon are creating excitement at NASA, there are concerns about how President Bush's exploration plan will be funded.
NASA is paying as it goes now, but there isn't enough money to fund the program as conceived on the drawing board.
Earlier this year, the General Accounting Office reported a big gap between NASA's estimated cost for returning to the moon and the agency's projected budget from now until 2025. It's a gap that starts at $18 billion, but could run much higher.
NASA is talking to other countries about partnering with them in this venture, a partnership that could be financially critical.