Engineers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston are busy creating tear-proof space suits, testing the heat shield on the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (successor to the old Apollo capsule), and road testing six-wheel-drive SUVs. Although the buzz on America’s planned return to the moon has faded to a low hum, NASA continues to prepare at a breakneck pace for a manned lunar landing by 2020, with a permanent base to follow. The race, it seems, is on.
To live, explore, and experiment on the moon means we need to plot—far more intimately than before—the lay of the land. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), slated to launch this fall, will pave the way by analyzing the composition of the soil, the temperature, and unexplored regions of the moon. Circling the poles, the LRO will profile mineral abundances, scout potential landing sites, and look for water-ice deposits, imaging the terrain to a resolution of three feet. The next step will be to sample the lunar surface, finding ways to build with it or extract resources (especially water) from it. For this, William Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon University led a team of engineers in creating a robotic rover that can dig through concrete-hard moon rock. Last December Whittaker, who is also a contender with a separate team for the $30 million Google Lunar X-Prize, demonstrated the four-wheeled rover, collecting samples of soil and rock guided by a laser camera.
NASA’s science goals after reaching the moon are still in flux, but the agency took one step forward in February when it promised $500,000 to the MIT-led Lunar Array for Radio Cosmology project, which aims to cover almost a square mile of the moon with hundreds of linked, 1,100-foot-square antennas to see in unprecedented detail how the first galaxies formed. The entire array is made to fit onto Ares, the giant launch vehicle now being designed for the upcoming moon missions. There are still plenty of problems to tackle—such as how to keep the antennas powered during the two-week-long lunar nights—but MIT team leader Jacqueline Hewitt is confident, as the group heads to Australia for testing, that by 2025 U.S. astronauts could begin building the very first lunar observatory. That depends, of course, on coming up with the roughly $1 billion in funding needed for the project.
In getting back to the moon, NASA space planners face overwhelming challenges: The shuttle is scheduled for retirement in 2010, the Ares rocket will not be ready until at least four years later, there is tepid support from all sides in the looming presidential election, and current estimates put the cost of getting humans back to the moon at $100 billion. (Rumors of scrapping the moon base and sending humans to asteroids instead continue to surface.) “The vision of the next 50 years,” NASA administrator Michael Griffin says, requires “a logical, incremental, stable, sustainable plan that can be executed with realistically attainable budgets.” He believes “we really can celebrate the 100th anniversary of Sputnik with the 20th anniversary of the first human landing on Mars.” But long before Mars, NASA faces tough budget and engineering battles to make sure its suits, capsules, and SUVs even get off the ground.