Goddard chosen as part of NASA lunar lander team



Years before astronauts touch down on the moon again, a robotic rover, built in part by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, will land there to scout the terrain.

NASA yesterday chose Goddard and the Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Ala., to lead the lander mission. It will cost between $400 million and $750 million, and could blast off as soon as 2010, NASA said.

The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, near Laurel, is also expected to get a portion of the work. The lander's primary goal will be to confirm hints from orbiters that there is water ice in permanently shadowed craters at the moon's poles.

Scientists say lunar water will be critical to the establishment of long-term lunar bases.

"The existence of water ice has important implications for living off the land when we return with human explorers," said Doug Cooke, an administrator on NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

NASA said the lander would also be used to test critical automated descent, surface-hazard avoidance and precision landing technologies needed for later manned landings.

Goddard is already at work building another unmanned lunar mission in preparation for manned landings.

Called Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), it is scheduled for launch in October 2008. Its mission will be to map the lunar surface.

Together, LRO and the lander project announced yesterday constitute NASA's Robotic Lunar Exploration Program. It was called for last year in President Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration," a blueprint for returning humans to the moon and eventually traveling to Mars.

Last month, NASA announced a $104 billion plan to send astronauts to the moon as early as 2018 aboard an Apollo-like "Crew Exploration Vehicle." The program would eventually establish a lunar base, where crews would live and work for as long as six months at a time.

The base would serve as a scientific outpost, as well as a proving ground for technologies and operations that could be adapted for longer manned missions to Mars.

NASA officials yesterday said overall management of the unmanned lander project will be centered at Marshall, where engineers will design and build the spacecraft's engines. Communications and navigation systems, and possibly a communications relay system will be developed at Goddard.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, called NASA's selections "a huge win" for the state.

NASA offered few details of the lander mission yesterday.

Chris Scolese, deputy director at Goddard, said earlier this week that the robotic lander would make a powered descent, and would probably have "some kind of mobility" on the surface.

NASA's rovers Spirit and Opportunity have been exploring the Martian surface since January 2004.


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