As it prepares to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first manned moon landing on July 20, the U.S. space agency NASA is looking to build on its achievements by establishing a permanent station on the moon's surface as it maps a path for space exploration to Mars and beyond.
Great strides have been made in understanding the lunar environment in the 40 years since U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to walk on the moon.
Robotic missions have identified evidence of ice at the moon’s poles, a potential source of water that could open the way for the establishment of a permanent lunar base and make exploration further into the solar system easier to conduct.
Meanwhile, orbital missions around the moon by satellites from China, Japan, and India are allowing for the production of high-resolution maps of the entire lunar surface and for the possible discovery of mineral deposits.
John Olson, director of NASA’s Exploration System Missions Directorate, describes the goal: a return to the moon and a mission to Mars under the U.S. space agency's new program for human space exploration, Constellation.
“The Constellation program differs from Apollo in the sense that we’re returning twice as many crew members to the surface of the moon for stays initially of seven days. And, of course, Apollo was much shorter than that," Olson says.
"We’re also looking to have global lunar access and anytime return. And what that means is that instead of being limited to the equatorial areas of the moon, we’re looking to be able to go to the poles and equatorial regions and anywhere in between,” he said.
Human Missions To Mars
Human missions to the moon will serve as precursors for human missions to Mars and other destinations, Olson says. The major focus of these lunar activities will be on demonstrating capabilities to conduct sustained research on Mars and increasingly more advanced exploration of the solar system.
Olson says that the rapid advancement in technologies and materials in the years following the last Apollo flight in December 1972 means there is little comparison between the Apollo and Constellation programs.
"It’s to return to the moon, but it’s to test and develop and refine the systems that will take us -- using the moon as a stepping stone -- to Mars and further beyond," Olson says. "So areas like medical countermeasures for radiation, closed-loop environmental control and life-support systems, we can refine recycling...Because we frankly can’t afford to take all the consumables for the much broader, more expansive and more challenging missions, and certainly that’s true for Mars.”
Since 2004, when then U.S. President George W. Bush outlined the broader strategy for further space exploration, NASA has been extensively consulting former Apollo astronauts.
Aldrin is an avid proponent of Mars exploration. In an interview with RFE/RL in 2008, he suggested that Mars is a much more hospitable environment for supporting humans than the moon.
“Everything we know makes it a lot better to try and support people there than on the moon," Aldrin said. "Of course, the moon is close -- we can send a lot of supplies and all that. Because it’s close we can do some things that are commercially attractive. We can process the ice into water, oxygen, hydrogen, rocket fuel, to be able to transport people in the Earth-moon system and be able to go to Mars.”
The first lunar orbiter was launched last year to map lunar resources in detail. A robotic landing will follow later this year to begin demonstrating capabilities for sustainable exploration of the solar system.
The first manned mission to the moon in the 21st century is scheduled to follow, as early as 2015. The moon will provide an environment to demonstrate the capabilities for further manned space exploration.