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.

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.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.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

"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."

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."

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.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.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.

Still, the moon is ultimately
much more forgiving because it is much closer — 250,000 miles away,
while Mars is 34 million miles from Earth at its closest point. If
someone needs help on the moon, it takes three days to get there. By
contrast, Mars will be several months away even with the help of
advanced — and as yet nonexistent — propulsion systems.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.Not
having to pay as dearly for mistakes is one key reason why the moon is
an integral part of the Bush initiative. The other, as even scientists
point out, is that if the United States does not return to the moon,
others will.

"The new thing is China, and they’ve announced
they’re going to the moon. The Europeans want to go; the Russians want
to go; and if we don’t go, maybe they’ll go with the Chinese," Mars
Institute Chairman Pascal Lee said in an interview. "Could we bypass
the moon and go to Mars while India and China are going to the moon? I
don’t think so."

Bush’s 2004 "Vision for Space Exploration," by
calling for a lunar return and a subsequent Mars mission, set goals,
which, if achieved, would keep the United States in the forefront of
space exploration for decades.

Since then, mishaps and delays
with the space shuttle and the space station programs have shrunk both
the moon research budget and the rhetoric promoting the mission.

NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin has focused agency attention and
resources on the design and construction of a new "crew exploration
vehicle" and its attendant rocketry — the spacecraft that will push
U.S. astronauts once again beyond low Earth orbit.

Despite the
moon’s current low profile, however, NASA continues to plan a lunar
mission and to promote the technological advances needed to achieve it.
Toups, one of the moon program’s designers, said NASA envisions that a
lunar presence, once achieved, will begin with two-to-four years of
"sorties" to "targeted areas."The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

These early forays will resemble
the six Apollo lunar missions, which ended in 1972. "You have four crew
for seven to 10 days," Toups said in a telephone interview. "Then, if
you found a site of particular interest, you would want to set up a
permanent outpost there."

The south pole is currently the top
target. It is a craggy and difficult area, but it is also the likeliest
part of the lunar surface to have both permanent sunlight, for electric
power, and ice, although many scientists have questions about how much
ice there is. Without enough water, mission planners might pick a
gentler landscape.

Site selection will mark the end of what McKay
calls Apollo-style "camping trips." "There’s got to be a lot more
autonomy, so we keep it simple," McKay said. "We’re going to be on Mars
for a long time, and we have to use the moon to think in those terms."

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.The
templates, cited frequently by moon mavens, are the U.S. bases in
Antarctica, noteworthy for isolation, extreme environment, limited
access, lack of indigenous population and no possibility of survival
without extensive logistical support.

"The lunar base is not a
‘colony,’ " Lee said. " ‘Colonization’ implies populating the place,
and that’s not on the plate. This is a research outpost."

By Guy Gugliotta