NASA may be going to the same old moon with a ship that looks a lot like a 1960s Apollo capsule, but the space agency said it is going to do something dramatically different this time: Stay there.
Unveiling the agency's bold plan for a return to the moon, NASA said on Monday it will establish an international base camp on one of the moon's poles, permanently staffing it by 2024, four years after astronauts land there.
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, NASA Associate Deputy Administrator Doug Cooke said.
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 a base camp, exploration chief Scott Horowitz said at a news conference in Houston.
In 2004, the year after the shuttle Columbia accident that killed seven astronauts, US President George W. Bush announced a plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020, and a later mission to Mars. The 16-year-long venture to the moon will take twice as long as NASA's first trip there took in planning.
Last year, NASA said it would cost US$104 billion just to get back to the moon for its first trip, but on Monday NASA officials declined to estimate the larger costs of a permanent lunar program.
The estimated time frame for NASA's lunar plans are: A first test of one of the lunar spaceships in 2009; the first manned test flight of the Orion exploration vehicle in 2014 and the first flight of the four-astronaut crew to the moon in 2020.
For four years, the lunar base won't be built up enough for long visits, so astronauts will only spend a week at a time. But after that, NASA envisions people living on the moon for six-month stints.
NASA hopes that hydrogen, oxygen and other moon resources can be used as supplies for the camp.