MONTREAL - Canada could be sending its first astronaut to the moon under an ambitious long-term plan being developed by a group of space agencies around the world.
A return to the moon within the next two decades is part of the recently updated Global Exploration Roadmap — a far-reaching plan developed by more than a dozen space agencies.
Canada is among the 14 space agencies participating in the International Space Exploration Coordination Group, which first started developing the strategy in 2007. The first roadmap was released in 2011 and the latest update was made public last week.
An early phase of the plan would put a new space station into orbit around the moon, and use it as a staging point to ferry astronauts back and forth.
It's part of a roadmap that lays out human and robotic missions in the solar system over the next 25 years, with the other components including a moon settlement and a proposal by NASA to capture a near-Earth asteroid.
Jean-Claude Piedboeuf, the director of space-exploration development at the Canadian Space Agency, says there's an agreement among space agencies that returning to the moon is a stepping stone to a more distant target: Mars.
There would be human missions in the lunar vicinity and on its surface until 2030, at which point sights would be set on the red planet.
"You need to master how to land on a planet — and the moon can be a test bed for that and how to live on the surface for a long time," said Piedboeuf, who noted that Canada is chairing the ISECG this year.
The CSA official suggested astronauts could again be moon-bound in about 15 years. It would be the first human visit to the shining orb since 1972, when NASA astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmidt spent 75 hours there.
This time, there could well be Canadian visitors.
Their specialty: robotics.
"We're proposing a vision where Canada could have an astronaut, effectively a Canadian who will be in lunar space, either in orbit or on the moon and could operate a Canadian rover in the same way that Canadians operate a Canadarm on the space station," Piedboeuf said.
"We can foresee in the future doing the same type of thing on the moon, with the Canadian industry building a rover — and a Canadian astronaut could be the operator of this rover."
The first stop on the pathway to Mars — the International Space Station — will continue to be manned until at least 2020.
Canada is working to get one of its two active astronauts, David Saint-Jacques or Jeremy Hansen, to visit the space station between 2016 and 2019.
"For the next 10 years, we can expect that human space flight will still be in an Earth orbit," Piedboeuf told The Canadian Press.
"But then, starting maybe in 2025 — that's really a guess because there's a lot of work — then we can start thinking about human orbit around the moon and basically doing some activity there, then starting back on the surface of the moon."
The plan would see a small human settlement established on the moon. Astronauts could use it to mine lunar resources while also learning how to survive away from Earth.
The scenario proposes the use of a "Deep Space Habitat," which would serve as a staging post. The habitat, a sort of mini-space station, could be placed at a so-called Lagrange point near the moon.
Lagrange points are locations where gravity balances itself out and where a space station could theoretically be stationary.
"We think that around the beginning of the '20s," Piedboeuf said, "we will have the capacity to send humans into lunar space."
Piedboeuf pointed out that Canada has been working with NASA and other space agencies to develop the next generation of rovers, which would go to the moon and Mars.
"In terms of human exploration, we are building the building blocks, the capability that we need to support human exploration," he said.
The recent retirement of the U.S. shuttle program was a critical moment — the end of one era, and the start of the next one described in the Global Exploration Roadmap.
Now the Americans and Russians are developing long-range rockets and space capsules, like NASA's Orion spacecraft, which will be used to send astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit.
But it's unclear whether the way to Mars will actually be led by national space agencies — like NASA, the CSA, the European Space Agency, and the Russian, Japanese, Indian and South Korean agencies.
Private ventures are planning to get there first.
The Inspiration Mars Foundation, an American non-profit organization founded by multimillionaire Dennis Tito, wants to launch a flyby mission to Mars involving a male-female couple in January 2018. Tito paid about $20 million to visit the International Space Station in 2001 aboard a Russian spacecraft.
The flyby mission might even use an inflatable habitat that was developed by a Canadian company based in Chilliwack, B.C., to house the couple on their long journey.
Maxim De Jong, the president of B.C.'s Thin Red Line Aerospace, noted in an interview that Tito has already said publicly that he will use a Canadian company to provide the structure.
But De Jong is still waiting to sign a deal.
"We're not formally under contract at this time," De Jong said.
"We've had preliminary discussions and hope to have something a little more formal in place soon."
Thin Red Line designed and built the hulls for two inflatable habitats, known as Genesis One and Genesis Two, for U.S.-based Bigelow Aerospace.
They were launched in 2006 and 2007 and are still orbiting the Earth.
The inflatable habitat is made with Kevlar, which is used in bullet-proof vests and which also provides shielding from radiation — which is one of the main dangers for astronauts in space.
The International Space Station will also test an inflatable module that will be attached to the orbiting lab in 2015.
And then there's the Mars One project, the brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur Bas Landorp.
The plan is to send to send a few willing pioneers on a one-way trip in 2023, with no guarantee they will ever return to Earth.
The $6-billion project will use existing technology and be funded through sponsors and private investors. The goal is to establish a permanent settlement on the red planet.
Thousands of individuals of all ages and from around the world, including many Canadians, have applied by posting videos online explaining why they want to make what's been described as a suicide mission.
The plan includes creating a reality TV show.