"We're going for a base on the moon," said Scott Horowitz, NASA's associate administrator for exploration, in a teleconference from Houston. "It's a very, very big decision."
With the space shuttle program scheduled to end in 2010, NASA has been searching for a new flagship program.
"The lunar base will be a central theme for going back to the moon in preparation to go to Mars and beyond," Horowitz told The Washington Post.
While construction and budget details have yet to be released, initial discussion about the base's proposed location has focused on the moon's south pole. The moon's polar sites have more moderate temperatures and longer periods of sunlight than the equatorial regions, which is critical for the solar-powered electrical systems NASA plans to use for the operation, according to Reuters.
The poles also contain vast quantities of helium and other gases that may be mined for commercial purposes, such as producing nuclear power.
NASA conceived the strategy after discussions with the international community, which included over 1,000 experts on space science and commerce from 14 countries. This global collaboration, which includes an international conference next year on setting goals for returning to the moon, will continue as NASA seeks partners to help share the financial burden of the landmark project.
If all goes according to plan, the astronauts who walk the moon's craggy surface in 2020 will be the first since the Apollo missions ended in 1972.