An international team of astronauts will be living and working at a permanent moon base to be built at one of the resource-rich lunar poles within two decades, NASA announced yesterday.
Earth's first off-world colonists will cruise the surface in a new-generation lunar lander that will function like a low-gravity pickup truck, possibly journeying to the dark side to build the most ambitious collection of observatories ever constructed, NASA said.
The announcement of NASA's vision to build a permanent scientific research station on the moon represents the space agency's first outline of its plans once it reaches the moon, scheduled no later than 2020.
"We will begin with short missions. Then we will build up to the point where we are staying 180 days, and then we will have a permanent presence," Doug Cooke, deputy associate administrator for exploration systems, said at a news conference at Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The permanent base could be operational as early as 2024, officials said.
In 2004, President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration, which proposed a return to the moon by 2020 as the first step to an eventual manned mission to Mars.
Since then, NASA has embarked on a $100 billion-plus program to design a new launch system and crew vehicle capable of carrying four astronauts to the lunar surface. To free up money to carry out the vision, NASA will mothball the space shuttle by 2010.
But until now, it was unclear what NASA had in mind for the moon. Was it to be nothing but a rest stop on the highway to Mars? Or was it to be a permanent off-world home for human beings, much like the International Space Station?
"We're going to go after a lunar base," said Scott Horowitz, associate administrator for exploration systems. "This is a very, very big decision; one of the few where the science and exploration communities agree."
It is a sweeping departure from the Apollo moon missions of the 1960s and represents a new phase of space exploration after space shuttles are retired in 2010.
NASA chose a "lunar outpost" over the short expeditions of the 1960s. Apollo flights were all around the middle area of the moon, but NASA decided to go to the moon's poles because they are best for longer-term settlements. And this time NASA is welcoming other nations on its journey.
The more likely of the two lunar destinations is the moon's south pole because it's sunlit for three-quarters of the time. That offers a better locale for solar power, plus the site has possible resources to mine nearby, said Cooke.
Some scientists have speculated about hidden ice deposits, a potential source of water for moon colonists. Lunar experts are particularly interested in an area in Shackleton Crater, which is at the south lunar pole.
"This is not your father's Apollo," said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. "I think it's the only way to sustain something like this over decades. This is not a flag-and-footprints. This is the idea of starting an outward movement that includes long stays on the moon."
To get to the moon, NASA will use two vehicles -- the Orion exploration vehicle and an attached all-purpose lunar lander that could touch down anywhere and be the beginnings of a base camp, Horowitz said.
Space science advocates have been complaining in recent months that money for basic scientific research is being raided to pay for manned space flight, which they feel is an expensive proposition, the benefits of which are unclear at a time when robotic explorers can perform many of the same tasks far more cheaply.
NASA officials said they won't make a final decision about where to build the lunar base until they get results from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, a mapping mission scheduled for launch in 2008.
NASA's vision for the moon is more than just American astronauts -- it includes space travelers from other countries and even commercial interests, if possible.
Having other countries sign onto the project would save NASA money, although the United States will design the moon vehicles, NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale said.
And while NASA welcomed its current partners on the International Space Station -- Russia, Europe and Japan -- the agency was cagey about its most enigmatic space rival, China, which has made noises about going to the moon.
NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin was dispatched to China earlier this year, but so far discussions with China are only about earth science and space junk, Dale said. She said including China in lunar plans is "not one of our charges."
The key decision for NASA in its planning was whether to have a permanent settlement, and that drove other decisions, Dale said. Going with a permanent base was an outcome of NASA asking itself and more than 1,000 experts from 14 nations the questions: "Why are we returning to the moon and what do we plan to do when we get there?"
Two key themes, according to NASA, were to prepare for future exploration, with Mars the next stop, and expansion of human civilization. Both NASA's science and engineering communities agreed on a permanent outpost, a consensus rare for two conflicting sides of the agency, Horowitz said.
The lunar plan calls for a commitment of money over the next three presidential terms, raising questions about future funding. But University of Texas aerospace engineering professor Hans Mark, a former NASA deputy administrator, gives the new plan an 80 percent chance of getting the money to put people on the moon by 2020.
While he says a more permanent base on the moon makes sense, American University public policy professor Howard McCurdy, who has written several books about NASA, fears the space program might stop there and not pursue Bush's plans to continue to Mars.
His concern is based on cost and technology, McCurdy said.
NASA doesn't plan to get additional money for its lunar program and will simply use money that had gone to the space shuttle program; much of the technology is based on expensive Apollo hardware, he said. So NASA has vowed to be creative with spending and technology, he said.
"The tooth fairy is not going to drop $500 to $800 billion on NASA," McCurdy said. "Being creative on the moon can sometimes get you confined to the moon."
John Johnson Jr. writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.