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A clever fellow once observed that the Moon is a harsh mistress. Humanity's subsequent jaunts up to the place indicated it was a pretty solid hypothesis. The Ritz-Carlton it is not.

Now NASA has the vision of not only returning astronauts back to the orbital dustball in 2020, but establishing a long-term moon base there. Needless to say, there's plenty of arrangements to be made before the moonbuggy pulls into 555 South Pole-Aitken Basin Avenue.

That's why nearly 500 scientists and amateur lunar lovers from gave gathered for an Earth-side conference this week at NASA/Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. The first annual Lunar Science Conference aims to discuss what kind of science should be done for our species' return to the moon.

"This is going to open a new era of scientific understanding," said NASA/AMES Director Simon 'Pete' Worden at the conference opening. "We will learn how we can live on another world."

The conference is organized by the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI), a fledgling NASA-funded organization made to supplement and extend existing lunar science programs.

NLSI is modeled on the successful NASA Astrobiology Institute, meaning it's a partnership between the US space department and other independent research organizations across the nation working together to help lead research activities.

The institute plans to initially fund about seven competitively selected team investigations in October that will focus on one or more aspects of lunar science. According to Dave Morrison, NLSI interim director, the teams will initially receive between $1m to $2m budgets per year.

"NASA doesn't guarantee funding," warned Morrison. "But we anticipate the same level for four years."

The organization will specialize in utilizing data rather than building the instruments to probe the moon. "We are going to focus on research and the training aspect," said Morrison. It also plans to be the rallying banner for public interest in future moon missions.

While scientists get excited over things like extraterrestrial botanics, applications of lunar dust, and protecting humanity from meteor impacts this week, it's also a celebration of the 39th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon.

"We're going back, and this time we're going to stay," said Worden. "This will begin the next step of settling the solar system." ®

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