NASA

Aiming high.
An artist's conception of a future lunar base.

A Man on the Moon ... Permanently

The Shackleton Crater rim near the moon's south pole will likely be the future home of a lunar human outpost, NASA officials said yesterday. A team of senior space agency managers laid out the blueprint for returning astronauts to the lunar surface by 2020. But this time, instead of a series of short, Apollo-like missions, NASA envisions setting up a base--initially with four astronauts--that would be fully functioning by 2024. "We're going to go after a lunar base--it's a very, very big decision," said NASA deputy exploration chief Doug Cooke at a press conference at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

NASA won't make a final decision on the location until its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, slated for launch next year, has scoped out the region. And the entire plan hinges on NASA's ability to build and fly a new launch vehicle early in the next decade. But that hasn't stopped the agency from looking ahead.

Its current plans focus on the rim of Shackleton, which offers nearly full-time sunlight as well as easy access to the moon's far side. NASA exploration chief Scott Horowitz said that the far side offers "exciting opportunities" as a quiet zone for radio astronomers. The location also would give geologists a chance to examine the Aitken Basin, an intriguing 4-billion-year-old formation a few hundred kilometers from the pole that may hold secrets from the early years of the solar system's development. "All respective walks of science will have their day," Horowitz added.

NASA plans to discuss the concept with scientists at a February meeting in Tempe, Arizona. Meanwhile, NASA's deputy administrator Shana Dale will begin talks with Europe, Canada, Japan, and other governments to seek support for the base. The agency also welcomes commercial partners. Horowitz says that NASA isn't expecting any major budget boosts to cover the as-yet-undetermined cost of the venture, whereas Dale says that "we go as we can afford to pay."

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