NASA announced Monday that it will establish an international base camp on one of the moon's poles and permanently staff it by 2024, four years after astronauts return to the moon.
It is a sweeping departure from the Apollo missions of the 1960s and represents a new phase of space exploration after space shuttles are retired in 2010.
After consulting more than 1,000 experts from 14 countries, NASA decided on what deputy NASA chief Shana Dale called a "fundamental lunar approach" that is sharply different from its previous moon missions in nearly everything but the shape of the ship going there.
NASA chose a "lunar outpost" over the short expeditions of the '60s. Apollo flights were all around the center of the moon, but NASA decided to go to the moon's poles because they are best for longer-term settlements. And this time NASA is welcoming other nations on its journey.
The more likely of the two lunar destinations is the moon's south pole because it's sunlit three-quarters of the time, making solar power easier, and has possible resources to mine in dark areas nearby, said associate deputy administrator Doug Cooke.
To get to the moon, NASA envisions an all-purpose lunar lander that could touch down anywhere and be the first part of a base camp, said exploration chief Scott Horowitz.
"The nickname I use for the lander is it's a pickup truck," Horowitz said. "You can put whatever you want in the back. You can take it to wherever you want. So you can deliver cargo, crew, do it robotically, do it with humans on board. These are the types of things we're looking for in this system."
After the space shuttle Columbia accident, President Bush announced in 2004 a plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. His plan would take 16 years, twice as long as NASA's first trip to the moon took in planning. NASA has not announced an estimated price for the project.