NASA hopes to put astronauts back on the moon by 2020, using a base station orbiting Earth and a new larger rocket, called the Ares V.
The Constellation project, which the agency detailed this week, could also be a significant first step in travel to Mars, says Frank Morring, the senior space technology editor for Aviation Week.
Unlike the Apollo space missions, the new trips to the moon will be a two-step process: One rocket will carry the gear and equipment, and a second will carry the crew. Morring says that the idea of separating the crew and the cargo came from the aftermath of the Columbia shuttle accident.
"There's a lot of the moon that we don't know about," he says. "Some of the original Earth's crust is probably sitting on the surface of the moon or close to it, where on Earth it's been eroded."
But, Morring says, many in the space community think NASA should focus on more distant exploration.
"There's this little robotic backhoe called Phoenix ... digging into what I'd guess you'd call the permafrost near the Martian north pole, coming up with some really interesting information that we've never had before," he says. The news that this robotic explorer sent back is what has caused the most intense excitement this week.
He says that the idea is to get to Mars gradually, first getting out of a low Earth orbit, then working on the moon and its different environment and gravity. If things go wrong there, he points out, it's a lot closer than Mars, and scientists can work out all sorts of problems more easily when crews are only days away from Earth. "It's sort of like a practice field," he says.