In the wake of the space shuttle Columbia accident, President Bush announced in 2004 a plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. His plan would take 16 years, twice as long as NASA's first trip to the moon took in planning.
As the Washington Post reported today, it's the law.
It's an ambitious, almost Star Trek-like vision, one that has ardent supporters and vocal detractors. But to a degree generally unappreciated by the public, it is the law of the land, since Congress adopted the president's moon-Mars proposal last year. And it is moving forward: NASA will publicly outline today its exploration strategy for the planned lunar missions.
That strategy will be different from the Apollo missions.
NASA announced Monday it will establish an international base camp on one of the moon's poles, permanently staffing it by 2024, four years after astronauts return to the moon.
NASA chose a "lunar outpost" over the short expeditions of the '60s. Apollo flights were all around the center 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, making solar power easier, and has possible resources to mine in dark areas nearby, said associate deputy administrator Doug Cooke.
The polar choice is interesting, in light of the NASA Science News email I got over the weekend. They've been tracking the locations of meteor strikes on the moon's surface. These hit during the past year:
"The flashes we saw [November 17] were caused by Leonid meteoroids 2 to 3 inches (5 to 8 cm) in diameter," says Cooke. "They hit with energies between 0.3 and 0.6 Giga-Joules." In plain language, that's 150 to 300 pounds of TNT.
How do you get so much energy out of a 3-inch meteoroid? "Leonids travel fast—about 144,000 mph," he explains. "At that speed, even a 3-inch rock packs tremendous energy."
And that's a concern for NASA as they plan for a moon base. Not only will their camp have to be able to sustain life, it will also have to be able to withstand the impact of meteors that don't have an atmosphere to burn them up before the strike.
They've got until 2020 to figure it all out.