"We're going to use the moon as a proving ground to go on to Mars and other destinations," said Stephen N. Simons, associate director of Lunar Systems at NASA Glenn Research Center, which is working on a host of projects with scientists from universities in Ohio and across the country.
"It's a lot easier to learn how to go to Mars when you're only three or four days away as opposed to being a year or more away."
In a speech four years ago, President Bush set a goal to land on the moon by 2020 before pushing on to Mars. Although there are critics of manned space exploration and its costs, NASA is carrying on with its mandate at least until the next commander in chief says otherwise.
For now, Ohio researchers join hundreds of others nationwide who are busy preparing for the first moon landing since 1972.
This fall, NASA is scheduled to launch its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, which includes a camera to capture the clearest, most-detailed images of the moon to date, as well as a laser altimeter to record its topography.
Rongxing Li, who runs the Mapping and GIS Lab at Ohio State University and is plotting the routes the twin Mars rovers travel, will integrate the pictures and topography to create 3-D maps that NASA will use to choose landing and exploration sites.
Li also is working with a team from Glenn, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California at Berkeley on developing positioning and mapping technology to help astronauts avoid getting disoriented.
Zero gravity and a foreign landscape make it difficult to judge distance, size and direction. Even with guidance from Houston, astronauts Alan Shepard and Ed Mitchell couldn't find the edge of a crater to collect rocks in 1971. The astronauts were 65 feet from the edge.
NASA plans to use a two-rocket system to fly to the moon. The huge Ares V rocket will take the unmanned Altair Lunar Lander into space, while the smaller Ares I rocket will carry the Orion Crew Vehicle and as many as six astronauts.
Orion will dock with the Altair and the Ares V will power them both to lunar orbit.
In an enormous work bay on campus, Glenn metalworkers have built the upper section of the Ares I prototype. That part of the 317-foot rocket is made of 12 steel rings, each about 10 feet tall and 18 feet across.
The workers used a laser guide as they milled the collars at the edge of the rings.
The collars, which are bolted together when the stack is assembled, can have aberrations no larger than one-200th inch, and the entire 120-foot stack can't be out of alignment more than one-eighth inch, said Therese Griebel, chief of the Glenn manufacturing division.
The rings will be trucked to an Ohio port this fall, placed on boats and shipped down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and around Florida to Cape Canaveral.
When the Ares prototype lifts off in April, the section will be wired with 235 sensors that will record vibrations, heat flow, expansion and contraction, pressure and metal strain.
The data will help determine modifications needed for manned flight.
Glenn and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne in Hartford, Conn., are building a cryogenic rocket to power the Altair lander. Altair includes a descent module that can carry as much as 22 tons and an ascent module that uses fuel capable of lifting off from the moon after months of sitting idle.
Engineers are testing methane and other fuels in a vacuum to determine how they might perform in space.
Cleveland researchers don't want to use the standard, toxic hydrazine in the pulse engines designed to keep the lander upright.
Astronauts on the moon will need a power system that works day and night, said Ken Burke, a NASA Glenn engineer. Glenn has tested a solar array that takes in more energy than is needed during daylight hours.
The excess power is stored in a fuel-cell battery that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. At dark, the battery generates electricity by recombining oxygen and hydrogen.
Lee Mason, a Glenn principal investigator, is studying a variety of nuclear reactors that are no bigger than a backyard garbage can. An outpost at a lunar pole would get seven months of light and five of darkness.
Near the equator, 15 days of sun are followed by 15 days of darkness.
NASA could deploy a generator that separates oxygen from silicon dioxide or metal oxides in the soil as early as the first landing, said Kurt Saksteder, a Glenn scientist.
"What we make on the lunar surface will reduce what we have to take into space reduce the weight, reduce the risks and reduce the costs," Saksteder said.
Ice, if found, could supply oxygen to breathe or oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel. Soil or water could be used to shield astronauts from manmade or space radiation.
Saksteder's group is investigating a way to focus sunlight to heat chemicals and power reactions that could provide energy for a variety of needs.
David Zeng, a professor of civil engineering at Case Western Reserve University, is working with Glenn to design the next-generation rover and exploration tools to excavate lunar soil and rocks.
To test equipment, "We need more soils than were brought back by Apollo. ... We need thousand of kilograms of soil," Zeng said.
"So we're trying to find soils on Earth that have the mechanical properties, the same particle size and strength."
Soil on the moon is fine, like talcum powder, but abrasive.
"There's no wind or water to carry away the fine particles or round them out," said Steve Bauman, a research engineer at NASA Glenn.
In a basement lab, he's studying a rover model with wide, flexible metal wheels that flatten to provide more traction on loose soil.
"Our job is to supply the science to make the rover correctly," Bauman said.
During extended space missions, astronauts' muscles begin to weaken, even atrophy.
Glenn and the Cleveland Clinic's Peter Cavanaugh have built a vertical treadmill that simulates exercise in zero gravity to understand the workout astronauts actually receive in space.
This will help Glenn design small exercise machines that give astronauts an Earth-like workout on the moon, said Kelly Gilkey, manager of the Exercise Countermeasures Lab.