NASA's outlook for the future calls for humans to dig in their heels on the Moon as early as 2015 and no later than 2020.

To achieve that goal, there is significant work ahead. For one, there's flying the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) by 2014 as one element of the Constellation Systems--the items needed to return humans to the Moon and eventually dispatch astronauts to Mars.

NASA has started assessing notions for lunar landers that will haul crew and cargo to the surface of the Moon late in the next decade.

And as NASA regains its Moon legs, it is worth noting what was left behind in the lunar dust. Six Apollo lunar landers touched down on the Moon between 1969 through 1972. These two-person vessels enabled moonwalkers--often called the "dusty dozen"--to carry out work on the lunar landscape from Apollo 11's modest 2.5 hours to Apollo 17's campaign of forays that added up to over 22 hours.

But then was then. The search is now on to regain that ability.

Doing our homework

"The lunar lander is probably the least well-developed of any of those pieces of infrastructure that the government plans to provide," said John Connolly, Manager of the Lunar Lander Pre-Project Constellation Program Office/APO at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

"We don't know what the lander quite looks like yet," Connolly reported at a recent space meeting. "We're not sure where it has to go or what it has to do."

Connolly explained that NASA is intent on meshing the work of internal groups with outside-the-agency brainstorming.

Last month, NASA issued a Request For Information (RFI) meant to explore diverse sets of lunar lander design configurations that may yield more innovative solutions to supporting lunar surface missions.

"It is about getting back to the Moon and doing our homework there so we can go on to Mars and beyond," Connolly told SPACE.com. "We're trying to engage industry, academia, or any interested individuals and collect innovative lunar lander concepts that address the current set of Constellation requirements.

The newly issued RFI, Connolly said, demonstrates that there is more to the Constellation Program than just the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

Science advice

The rebirth of human exploration of the Moon is one action item of former Apollo 17 astronaut, Harrison Schmitt. While he's a been-there-done-that moonwalker, he is also chair of the newly spruced up and re-chartered NASA Advisory Council.

In that capacity, Schmitt has been busy building a bridge between the science community and NASA exploration officials. "We want to make sure we have as broad a basis for scientific advice as possible," he told a recent gathering of scientists.

One of Schmitt's targets of opportunity: Having scientists help influence the new lunar lander design.

"As conceptual designs of a new generation of lunar landing craft are being considered," Schmitt told SPACE.com, "it is time for the broad scientific community to provide NASA with specific goals and objectives for scientific exploration and experiment deployment during or in conjunction with future lunar activities."

Schmitt noted that a similar effort by the scientific community in 1965 led to the initial definition of scientific goals and objectives for the Apollo lunar landings. That advice, in turn, influenced the design and re-design of the Apollo program's Lunar Module and Command and Service Module, he said.

A busy place

"As the Apollo program progressed, this definition matured into increasingly more sophisticated experiments and astronaut training. Geological exploration became a prominent component of mission preparation," Schmitt added. "Such planning and preparation led to the extraordinary scientific understanding we now have of the Moon and, as a consequence, of the early history of the Earth and other terrestrial planets."

The human and robotic lunar sortie missions being planned by NASA will provide new opportunities for geological exploration of never visited regions of the Moon, Schmitt explained.

Schmitt foresees the Moon as a busy place: geophysical sensors spread out to better understand the interior of the Moon; observatories to add to our understanding of the solar system and the universe; and utilizing the Moon to prepare for future exploration of Mars.

Straightforward mantra

For their part, NASA internal teams are scrutinizing a variety of items, from the design of the lunar lander itself, crew cabin layout, to piloting sightline/visibility, as well as airlock design and landing gear--even how to package lunar lander hardware for launch from Earth.

Also, there's interest in exploring options for deployment of a lunar outpost in pieces that can be packaged within the excess touchdown mass of a lunar lander.

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VIDEO: A New Era of Space Exploration
Video animation of how NASA plans to get back to the Moon by 2018.

Orchestrating all this effort is NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD), led by former shuttle astronaut, Scott Horowitz.

ESMD's mantra is straightforward: "Safe, sustained, affordable human and robotic exploration of the Moon, Mars, and beyond ... for less than one percent of the federal budget."

Several new twists to NASA's Moon strategy were issued by Horowitz late last month.

For one, the Robotic Lunar Exploration Program has been renamed the Lunar Precursor and Robotic Program (LPRP). The LPRP office will be located at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. A new Lunar Lander Project Office will also be located at Marshall. This office will be responsible for performing early studies and developing requirements for the Lunar Surface Access Module (LSAM).

These changes, Horowitz stated, will allow a greater synergy between the development of the overall architecture for the Moon, precursor activities needed for the Constellation Systems, and their direct interrelationship with eventual lunar surface activities.

Lay that infrastructure

Regarding the shuffling of Moon plans, Kelly Humphries, a NASA spokesperson at Johnson Space Center said that any changes in internal NASA organization should not affect the recently issued Request For Information. "NASA will continue to actively seek input from industry and academia, wherever the lander project office is located."

NASA's Connolly said the space agency has begun focusing on what to do once on the Moon. Part of that is getting all the pieces of hardware in place.

"We need to lay that infrastructure...first at the Moon and then to Mars...for the scientists and the commercial developers to follow. That is the fundamental role of government...to pay for things too expensive for anybody else to afford," Connolly observed. "Also, the role of the government is to get out of the way when those other folks show up."