WASHINGTON — NASA is asking private industry to come up with creative ideas for a lunar outpost that can house four astronauts for one to four weeks on the moon starting about 2024.
The moon base must be equipped to send out crews for hundreds of miles in pressurized rovers, bring back scientific samples and return them safely to Earth, NASA officials said.
"We're looking for better ways of doing things, for clever ideas," Chris Culbert, the manager of the space agency's Lunar Surface Systems project, told about 100 space industry executives recently. "We've been to the moon before. That was only two people for short stays. This is not the same."
At the industry meeting, NASA officials outlined their minimum specifications for an initial lunar base that could be expanded later to hold larger crews for up to six months at a stretch.
The base would have to be self-sufficient for long periods, especially in an emergency. "There'll be no Home Depot for repairs," said Geoff Yoder, the director of integration in NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.
Living and working quarters would consist of a set of interconnected "modules" containing enough air, water, food and equipment for 28 days, said Larry Toups, the manager of habitation systems for the lunar outpost. The modules also will need to handle waste, heat, pressure and humidity, and to provide protection from moon dust and radiation.
To be launched on an Aries V rocket from Earth, each module could weigh no more than 7,000 kilograms (7.7 tons) and be no wider than 8.5 meters (27 feet), Toups said.
Pressurized spacesuits for astronauts' extravehicular expeditions could be stored in the module walls, open to the outside. That would let astronauts get in or out in as little as 15 minutes, compared with the hour or more it now takes on the International Space Station.
An array of solar panels would supply power, providing up to 35 kilowatts of electricity, enough for 25 to 30 typical American homes. Nuclear power is also a possibility, Culbert said.
The astronauts must be able to get away from their base — probably in a huge crater near the moon's south pole — and travel widely across the surface, exploring the landscape and collecting scientific data.
"They'll need great mobility — a hundred kilometers at a minimum, eventually thousands of kilometers," Yoder said. A kilometer is 0.6 mile. "This is not going to be just an outpost. We want to begin science and exploration from Day One."
Yoder showed the executives sketches of a sample six-legged rover that could step over large boulders and climb steep walls.
Matt Leonard, Culbert's deputy project manager, said the lunar outpost also would need machinery to dig up and move moon soil, known technically as regolith.
"We need to move dirt around on the surface of the moon," Leonard said. He explained that NASA wants to be able to harden "streets" for vehicles, construct level landing and launching pads, and build berms to screen rocket blasts.
"The more we can make the surface like a city street, the better for the crew and the rovers," Leonard said.
The rovers will be equipped with tools to dig trenches for science and for waste disposal.
Novel packaging systems are needed to protect the astronauts' equipment during the intense vibration of a rocket launch. To save space and weight, Leonard urged the executives to consider an edible foam material that could be disposed of when it's done its job.
"Maybe they could eat it," he said.