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Man will be able to live on the moon by the year 2020, says NASA

NASA has opened the door to the next generation of space discovery by announcing ambitious plans for a permanently staffed base on the surface of the Moon.

Construction on the lunar outpost would begin soon after 2020, with astronauts living there within four years, the space agency said. The project comes after several prominent scientists and environmentalists urged humans to look beyond Earth to ensure the survival of the species.

Ultimately, the Moon would be a staging post for humans to explore the solar system and one day land on Mars.

"This is not your father's Apollo," said John Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, referring to America's short-stay trips to the Moon of the 1960s and 1970s.

"This is not flag-and-footprints. This is the idea of starting an outward movement that includes long stays on the Moon."

NASA began planning for the first lunar landing since 1972 when George Bush, the US president, announced his new vision for space exploration four years ago.

The agency has already unveiled the design of the Orion spacecraft that will replace the ageing space shuttle fleet in 2010 and the heavy-lift Ares rockets that will carry humans and cargo back to the Moon.

The proposal for the lunar base, however, is the first detailed account of how NASA, in partnership with space agencies from around the world, intends to prepare for the first manned exploration of deep space and a possible Mars mission within three decades.

A robotic probe will be sent in 2008 to scout potential sites, but the settlement is likely to be built on the Moon's south pole, which NASA officials say is the logical choice for Mr Bush's stated objective of "living off the land" as far as possible. The southern end faces the Sun for 75 per cent of the time and would allow for the best harvesting of solar power.

Scientists also believe that the south pole craters contain rich natural gases such as the rare helium-3 that could be used as fuel for the generation of nuclear power. In addition, teams of astronauts living there for six months at a time would mine for hydrogen and oxygen to make water and possibly rocket fuel.

"Conditions at the south pole appear to be more moderate and safer," said Shana Dale, a deputy administrator of NASA.

"Blasting fuel out of the well of Earth's gravity is immensely expensive. But if water is found on the Moon, hydrogen to make hydrogen fuel cells could be extracted."

The base plan also calls for the development of a pressurised rover vehicle that would allow astronauts to drive around on the Moon's surface without wearing spacesuits.

Dr Michael Griffin, the head of NASA, said that the project could only succeed in partnership with other countries and space agencies, especially Canada, Russia and Europe. He has likened the project to the exploration of earth's polar regions in the last century, with nations combining resources in a spirit of discovery.

China, however, is unlikely to participate despite its own significant investment in space and Dr Griffin's visit there this summer, the first by any NASA official to inspect the country's space facilities.

The level of UK involvement also remains to be seen. Britain is a junior partner in the European Space Agency and its annual contribution - $129 million in 2004-5 - is too low for a place in the organisation's human spaceflight programme, which the UK government considers of "disproportionately low scientific value".

However, Nicholas Patrick, a Yorkshire-born US astronaut whose mother is from Skye, is scheduled to venture into space tomorrow for a 12-day mission aboard the shuttle Discovery.

He said he intended to lobby politicians for the country to take a bigger role.

"Britain has such a wonderful history as an exploring nation, I would hate to see it go forward without participating in the space exploration that's going on these days," said Mr Patrick, who helped design the cockpit of the new Orion spacecraft.

NASA has not announced how much the lunar base will cost but says that it can be paid for within existing budgets and with contributions from partner countries and commercial investment. The agency receives $8.6 billion annually from the US government.

Physicist Stephen Hawking, a Cambridge University professor, has previously warned that the "long-term survival of the human race is at risk" if it is confined to a single planet.

He said: "Sooner or later, disasters such as an asteroid collision or a nuclear war could wipe us out. But once we spread out into space, and establish independent colonies, our future should be safe."

Professor James Lovelock, a British environmentalist who has worked with NASA designing scientific equipment to try to find life on other planets, has echoed Mr Hawking's concerns. In his book The Revenge of Gaia, he warns that climate change could almost wipe out humanity, causing the world's population to drop from 6.5 billion to as little as 500 million.

FIFTY YEARS ON AND NO END TO THE SPACE RACE

4 October, 1957: Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, is launched by the Soviet Union to analyse the Earth's atmosphere, sparking the space race

3 November, 1957: The Soviet Union launches Sputnik-2, carrying a dog, Laika, into space, making it the first spacecraft to carry a living creature

1 January, 1959: Luna-1, the first spacecraft to escape Earth's orbit, is launched. Built by the Soviets, it discovered the existence of solar wind and the fact that the Moon has no detectable magnetic field

12 April, 1961: Yuri Gagarin completes the world's first manned spaceflight, aboard a Vostok spacecraft. He is known in Russian history as the "Columbus of the cosmos"

20 July, 1969: The United States' Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, land on the surface of the Moon to take "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind"

4 July, 1997: NASA's Mars Pathfinder lands and deploys the first rover on the red planet

Q & A:

Why do we need a Moon base?

NASA says a permanent lunar outpost is essential for training astronauts and testing equipment for the next generation of space exploration, notably manned missions into the solar system and an eventual landing on Mars.

Will this help us get to Mars?

The space agency says the base is crucial to such a mission because it will allow astronauts to acclimatise and prepare for such a long-duration trip (at least a 68 million mile-round trip in up to three years).

What are the dangers and obstacles?

The Moon is a harsh environment with low gravity, constantly pelted by micro-meteorites and exposed to temperature swings of hundreds of degrees. Conventional construction machinery would soon be ruined by Moon dust.

What resources are there on the Moon?

Scientists believe there are significant amounts of hydrogen which could be harvested for use as fuel. Ice deposits can provide water and craters may contain volatile gases that could be used commercially.

How much will it cost, and can NASA afford it?

NASA's original estimate of $116 billion by 2025 has been affected by many factors, not least design changes in the rockets and vehicles and inflation. The agency will not say how much it might cost now, but is banking on money saved from the 2010 retirement of the space shuttle fleet, and investment from foreign space agencies, to bolster its $8.6 billion annual budget.

What's the timetable?

NASA will send a probe to the Moon in 2008 to look for a suitable site, and plans to test-fly its first unmanned Orion spacecraft a year later. In 2014, the first manned launch is scheduled, with a Moon landing and start of construction in 2020. It is hoped astronauts will be living there by 2024.

Why didn't NASA do this at the height of the space race?

Its objectives were different then. The race was to get to the Moon, not stay there. When Congress pulled the plug on funding for the Apollo missions in 1972, the moon was forgotten and NASA concentrated on development of the shuttle.

Will space tourists be able to visit?

Probably, but not for many years. NASA has a long-standing policy of allowing only its own astronauts into space, but partner agencies, such as Russia, can and do sell seats.

How will it differ from the space station?

The Moon base is intended as a permanent outpost for use long into this century, and its primary purpose will be to prepare astronauts and equipment for onward journeys.

Will Britain be involved?

British scientists will undoubtedly contribute expertise, but the UK is not involved at a high enough level to have any major clout. -scotsmannews

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