The next astronauts to work on the moon will likely live in larger habitats and drive sporty new rovers capable of two-week treks, NASA officials said Thursday.
Rather than assembling a lunar outpost over time from a multitude of small, separately launched modules, NASA is now hoping to land up to three large habitats on fewer flights to build a beachhead on the moon, the space agency said.
Doug Cooke, NASA's deputy associate administrator for exploration systems, said that the space agency's revised lunar plan calls for the launching of larger habitats to the moon on unmanned cargo flights. That way, the first new lunar astronauts could begin to reap science rewards faster than if they had to haul smaller habitat sections and hardware to the moon on each flight, then combine them into a larger base to support long-duration expeditions.
"We want to get scientific return. We want to get information that will help, potentially, space commerce and we want to get international participation early," Cooke told reporters in a teleconference. "All of these objectives we want to address as early in the flights as we possibly can by getting the outpost up and running quickly."
Cooke and other NASA officials detailed the agency's revised lunar plan at the Space 2007 Conference of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in Long Beach, California. NASA aims to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 using its space shuttle successor — the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Ares I booster — as well as the Ares V heavy-lift rocket.
"There is some great science to do on the moon," said Laurie Leshin, director of sciences and exploration NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, adding that future astronauts will help better understand the moon's environment and interior.
NASA has eyed the moon's Shackleton Crater near the lunar south pole as a possible moon base site because of its proximity to permanently lit and shadowed regions that could be key for solar power stations and the hunt for water ice. But Cooke said that Shackleton is not the only candidate for a moon base, especially since the revised plan calls for mobile habitat modules that could move between science targets or gather together in a sort of lunar spare parts depot.
Data from NASA's unmanned Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, set to launch next year, and other international probes will help pin down future landing sites, Cooke added.
Lunar hot rod
Once astronauts return to the moon, NASA does not expect them to simply stand around their landing craft collecting nearby rocks.
Astronaut Mike Gernhardt, NASA's lead for extravehicular physiology systems and performance projects, said the agency is now planning to send a pair of pressurized rovers that will allow spaceflyers to explore more of the lunar surface while retaining the relative comfort of a shirt-sleeve environment.
"They're basically habitats on wheels," Gernhardt said, adding that the new vehicles would be about the same size as the unpressurized rovers driven by astronauts during NASA's Apollo moon landings. "If you can picture this thing, it's kind of a combination between a spacesuit and a sports car."
Both rovers would be deployed together, each with a crew of two astronauts. If one rover failed, all four spaceflyers could pile into the remaining vehicle to return to their lunar base, Gernhardt said. Current plans call for a 5,000-pound (2,267-kilogram) pressurized vehicle with seats that fold into beds for longer trips.
The two-person rovers would be equipped to handle three-day, seven-day and two-week excursions on the moon with exterior-mounted spacesuits that could be donned by climbing through a shared hatchway, Gernhardt said. It could take just 10 minutes to step into the spacesuits and onto the lunar surface, he added.
Short jaunts could cover about 25 miles (40 kilometers) with the two-week trips roving across 596 miles (960 kilometers) across the lunar surface, he added.
As to how much the rovers may cost, Gernhardt could only offer an estimate.
"I will only say that it will be more than a Ferrari," he said.