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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

NASA wants to put astronauts back on the dusty gray surface of the moon before the year 2020, and they'll do more than just visit. The plans are to build a small settlement where astronauts could stay for months. In a few minutes we'll hear from some advocates of space exploration who are not thrilled with the government's proposal.

First, NPR's Nell Boyce tells us what NASA has in mind.

NELL BOYCE: Almost three years ago President Bush announced a new vision for NASA. As soon as the agency finished building the international space station, it should return to the moon. To do that, NASA has been designing rockets that it calls Apollo on steroids, but the goal of this moon shot will be different than Apollo.

Mr. SCOTT HOROWITZ (NASA): We're going to go after a lunar base.

BOYCE: Scott Horowitz is NASA's head of exploration.

Mr. HOROWITZ: And so a lunar base will be the central theme in our going forward plan for going back to the moon in preparation to go to Mars and beyond.

BOYCE: NASA decided it needed a moon base after months of studying how to best explore the lunar surface. Horowitz calls this a very, very big decision and others agree. Ben Bussey is a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University's applied physics lab.

Professor BEN BUSSEY (Johns Hopkins University): The idea of a permanent presence and building up an outpost and a foothold into the solar system is huge. We're going back to the moon to stay, to learn how to live off the land. Basically to learn how to live off planet.

BOYCE: NASA doesn't have a design for the outpost yet, but the best bet is that a lunar base would look something like a dusty trailer park in Antarctica. It would need to have a landing pad and maybe a parking lot for a rover. George Whitesides his head of the National Space Society, which advocates for space exploration.

Mr. GEORGE WHITESIDES (National Space Society): You know if you look at the early designs, it does sort of look like a very rudimentary village that you might see on the South Pole or something like that with, you know, small habitats, sort of tin-canny kind of things on the rim of a crater in the South Pole.

BOYCE: A spot next to a crater would be prime real estate because the crater's cold, shadowy interior might hide water in the form of ice. And planners are looking at the moon's poles because there's lots of sunlight and the outpost will run on solar power.

NASA won't select a building site until robotic missions provide better maps of the lunar surface. One mapping mission is planned for 2008, but the goal is that 20 years from now, people will be living on the moon for months at a time. Experts say the plan seems technologically feasible. John Logsdon heads the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

Professor JOHN LOGSDON (George Washington University): There is no showstopper in going to the moon and establishing a permanent outpost there except political will that translates into budgets.

BOYCE: And those two issues, political will and money, have bedeviled past NASA efforts. Logsdon recalls that in 1989, the first President Bush announced plans to go to the moon and stay.

Professor LOGSDON: But when it became clear that the political will to move forward was not there, it kind of faded by a year or two later.

BOYCE: This time, though, he says plans for rockets are already in the works and there's more momentum. Still, NASA officials say they currently can't estimate the cost of a moon base and Logsdon says it's bound to be expensive.

Professor LOGSDON: There's certainly not enough money in the NASA budget as it now exists to do this on our own. It has to be an international effort.

BOYCE: That's why top NASA managers have been meeting with space agencies in more than a dozen nations.

Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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