NASA plans return to moon as prelude to Mars voyage

Proposal addresses goal stated by Bush last year

July 31, 2005|By Michael Cabbage | Michael Cabbage,ORLANDO SENTINEL

HOUSTON - NASA's new road map for the human exploration of space would land four astronauts on the moon by 2018 as the first step toward an eventual six-person voyage to Mars.

Pioneers would build an outpost, most likely at the lunar South Pole, with living quarters, power plants and communication systems. Expeditions would scavenge the desolate landscape for fuel and water.

Astronauts would roam the surface in high-tech dune buggies to search for answers to scientific riddles that continue to baffle researchers. The crews would blast off aboard rockets derived from the space shuttle fleet and parachute back to Earth in capsules similar to those used during the Apollo program.

The assault on the moon would be a precursor to 500-day expeditions on Mars, more than 35 million miles away.

Those and other specifics of NASA's ambitious plans for a new era of human space travel are outlined in a set of internal briefing charts on the agency's recent Exploration Systems Architecture Study. A copy of those briefings, parts of which are scheduled to be made public next month, was obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.

Some things are subject to change, and important decisions have yet to be made. But the study is the first detailed description of how NASA intends to accomplish the goals announced by President Bush in January 2004 of returning astronauts to the moon by 2020 to prepare for missions to Mars.

The program has considerable support from the White House and Congress, but to become a reality it will have to withstand the test of time. The study estimates that the program will cost about $217 billion through 2025. NASA's exploration office is projected to receive about the same amount of money over that period.

Agency refocused

To stay within the budget, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has spent much of his first three months on the job refocusing the agency and its resources on preparing for a return to the moon.

"I hope that you will see as we bring it forward," Griffin told Congress on June 28, "a logical, clean, simple, straightforward approach."

NASA managers have declined to be interviewed about the plan until its public release. One, however, said privately that Griffin's involvement has made a huge difference.

"[NASA] can no longer take a business-as-usual approach, and Mike Griffin clearly understands that," the manager said. "We have to be more financially and technically creative to do the things we need to do."

All of the hardware needed for the Apollo moon landings from 1969 to 1972 reached orbit with a single launch of the giant Saturn 5 rocket. But because Saturn 5 production ended more than 30 years ago, NASA has been looking for new boosters powerful enough to lift the heavy loads required for lunar missions.

Engineers debated for months whether to develop a heavy-lift rocket from parts of the shuttle or rely on improved versions of the Atlas and Delta boosters used by the Air Force to launch satellites. According to the study, they chose the shuttle-derived option because of lower cost and superior lifting ability.

"[It's the] only viable solution given [the] timeframe and current market," the study noted.

The hardware and cargo required for lunar missions would lift off aboard a 40-story colossus built around the shuttle's external fuel tank. This unmanned booster would be developed between 2010 and 2018.

The projected price tag of $540 million per launch is comparable to the cost of a shuttle flight.

NASA has decided to launch future astronauts on moon and space station missions aboard a rocket derived from another piece of shuttle hardware.

Starting in June 2011, astronauts would lift off to the station atop a modified version of the shuttle's pencil-shaped solid rocket booster. The rocket's new second stage would be powered by one of the shuttle's engines.

The $280 million missions would free NASA from having to depend solely on the Russians for station flights after the shuttle's retirement. The same rocket later would be used to launch crews into low Earth orbit to begin trips to the moon. NASA estimates the launcher would be nine times safer than the shuttle.

"We have ways to construct such vehicles using shuttle solid rocket motors and external tanks and shuttle main engines," Griffin said Friday of the new boosters. "We think the existing components offer us huge cost advantages as opposed to starting from a clean sheet of paper, and that's what I've proposed doing."

Designing new vehicles

New spacecraft are being designed to ride atop the new rockets.

Engineers are developing a cone-shaped Crew Exploration Vehicle, or CEV. Initial versions of the CEV would launch aboard the modified shuttle booster and carry three-person crews to the space station a couple of times per year.

The ships could also be used to transport cargo to the outpost. Larger, future versions of the capsule would take four people to the moon and six-person crews to Mars.

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