Canada could play a prominent role in NASA's plan to return astronauts to the moon by 2018, scientists with the U.S. space agency said Monday as it unveiled a lunar exploration plan expected to cost upwards of $104 billion US.
The country's internationally recognized expertise in underground drilling in extreme environments such as the far north is a specialized skill that the agency will need for its venture, said NASA chief scientist Jim Garvin.
The remote manipulator known as the Canadarm, a fixture on past space shuttle missions that made its deep-space debut in 1981 and is often lauded as Canada's greatest engineering success, is a shining example of Canada's contributions to the U.S. space program.
Garvin, speaking at the 7th annual International Lunar Conference in Toronto, said NASA will once again need Canada's help in setting up a permanent, "Antarctic-like presence" on the moon -- a "beachhead in deep space" that could eventually serve as a staging ground for missions to Mars.
"Canada certainly has a lot to bring to the table," said Garvin, noting that NASA hopes one day to make the moon a livable environment and extract any natural resources it might possess.
"People say, `Well, been there, done that,' (but) I say, `Hold it,"' he said. "We haven't conquered the moon. It's a planet the size of Africa and we've been to six spots the size of a large backyard or farm or ranch. That's not exploring. That's touching."
While the Canadian Space Agency hasn't been given a specific mandate yet from the U.S. federal government, experts there are hopeful that Canada's technical expertise in the oil and gas sector will be its golden ticket to getting on board the NASA mission.
"Humans have an innate desire to explore and Canada is such a vast and beautiful wild country that we have a lot of exploration in our history, in our genes," said Victoria Hipkin, a program scientist of planetary exploration for the Canadian Space Agency.
"My hope is that one day we would see a Canadian on the moon or on Mars."
NASA unveiled a $104 billion US, 13-year road map Monday for its plans to return to the moon in a new rocket that combines the space shuttle with an Apollo-style capsule and lander capable of carrying four people to the surface.
The rockets -- one for people, a larger one for cargo -- would be built from shuttle booster rockets, fuel tanks and main engines, as well as moon rocket engines. A crew exploration vehicle would be perched on top.
"Think of it as Apollo on steroids," NASA administrator Michael Griffin said as he detailed the new plan at a news conference in Cape Canaveral, Fla.
The crew exploration vehicle could carry as many as six astronauts to the international space station.
Unlike Apollo, which carried two astronauts to the moon for a stay of less than a day, the new rocket would carry twice as many people to the surface and allow them to stay for up to two weeks.
It also would haul considerably more cargo, much of which would be left on the moon for future crews.
The same type of craft may be used for expeditions to Mars, Griffin said, but no timetable for such a mission has been set.
NASA believes the crew exploration vehicle would be far safer than the space shuttle, largely because of an old-style escape tower that could jettison the capsule away from the rocket in the event of an explosion or fire.
"It is new," Garvin said of the modern technology and how it compares to that used for the Apollo moon landing on July 20, 1969.
"But what we're doing this time is not starting from scratch.", National Post reported.