by Guy Gugliotta
HOUSTON -- For the first time since 1972, the United States is planning to fly to the moon, but instead of a quick, Apollo-like visit, astronauts intend to build a permanent base and live there while they prepare what may be the most ambitious undertaking in history -- putting human beings on Mars.
|Possible design for the proposed Moon Base - Source: aiai.ed.ac.uk
President Bush in 2004 announced to great fanfare plans to build a new spaceship, get back to the moon by 2020 and travel on to Mars after that. But, with NASA focused on designing a new spaceship and spending about 40 percent of its budget on the troubled space shuttle and international space station programs, that timetable may suffer.
Still, NASA's moon planners are closely following the spaceship initiative and, within six months, will outline what they need from the new vehicle to enable astronauts to explore the lunar surface.
"It's deep in the future before we go there," said architect Larry Toups, head of habitation systems for NASA's Advanced Projects Office. "But it's like going on a camping trip and buying a new car. You want to make sure you have a trailer hitch if you need it."
Scientists and engineers are hard at work studying technologies that don't yet exist and puzzling over questions such as how to handle the psychological stress of moon settlement, how to build lunar bulldozers and how to reacquire what planetary scientist Christopher P. McKay of NASA's Ames Research Center calls "our culture of exploration."
The moon is not for the faint of heart. It is a lethal place, without atmosphere, pelted constantly by cosmic rays and micrometeorites, plagued by temperature swings of hundreds of degrees, and swathed in a blanket of dust that can ruin space suits, pollute the air supply and bring machinery to a screeching halt.
And that says nothing about the imponderables. Will working in one-sixth of Earth's gravity for a year cause crippling health problems? What happens when someone suffers from a traumatic injury that can't be treated by fellow astronauts? How do people react to living in a tiny space under dangerous conditions for six months?
"It's like Magellan. You send them off, and maybe they come back, maybe they don't," said planetary scientist Wendell W. Mendell, manager of NASA's Office for Human Exploration Science, during an interview at the recently concluded Lunar and Planetary Science Conference here. "There's a lot of pathologies that show up, and there's nobody in the Yellow Pages."
In some ways, the moon will be harder than Mars. Moon dust is much more abrasive than Mars dust; Mars has atmosphere; Mars has more gravity (one-third of Earth's); Mars has plenty of ice for a potential water supply, while the moon may have some, but probably not very much.
Story continues at washingtonpost.com.