Riding to the moon on ideas of the past

Ideas from Apollo program help fuel return to moon


It looks like Apollo. And, if Congress foots the bill, NASA's proposed "Crew Exploration Vehicle" would fly astronauts to the moon and back in 2018 pretty much the way Apollo did in 1969.

The similarities have some Americans wondering why the space agency would spend more than $100 billion to repeat something we mastered when Richard Nixon was president.

"It seems like buying a used car," said Charles County resident Dudley N. Thompson, in a recent letter to The Sun. The plan "largely ignores Mars and focuses on an achievement we attained 35 years ago."

But NASA officials insist the Apollo blueprints still make sense. And they stress there's plenty they need to learn before sending people back to the moon, and more still before crews can safely make the 18-month voyage to Mars and back.

"We can't do that today," said NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin. "We cannot live for 18 months in low Earth orbit without sustenance from Earth. And we have not learned how to live in a gravity field on another planet for 18 months without sustenance from Earth."

"We're going to learn how to do those things on the [International] Space Station and on the surface of the moon. And when we can do them with a very high confidence, it will be safe to send a crew to Mars," he said. "Otherwise, it's a recipe for killing people."

Scientists and engineers say the long-duration stays they're planning on the moon, and much longer voyages to Mars, will require, among other things, that they learn how to extract water, oxygen and even rocket fuel from the lunar soil. And they must learn to protect astronauts from the deadly radiation they'll face when they venture beyond low Earth orbit.

But for all that's novel about them, the plans Griffin unveiled last month for landing astronauts on the moon by 2018, after an absence of 46 years, do look strikingly retro.

Like the Apollo capsules, America's new Crew Exploration Vehicle, or CEV, will be a conical, "blunt-body" spacecraft, launched atop a slim, multistage rocket.

The aging space shuttles are scheduled to be retired by 2010. But NASA will re-enlist the shuttles' trusty main engines and simple solid-fuel rocket boosters. They'll be stacked together to lift the CEVs and related hardware to orbit.

NASA didn't set out to bring back the Apollo capsule, said John F. Connolly, a special assistant in NASA's exploration systems directorate.

"But as you dig into the physics of moving around the solar system, of re-entry and launch, the physics tended to make it look like Apollo," he said. "We had to tip our hat to the guys back in the '60s ... and we retraced some of their steps."

Like their Apollo forebears, the CEV crews will crawl into a separate lander to fly from lunar orbit to the moon's surface. They will blast off the moon in an ascent portion of the lander, dock with the CEV capsule, streak back to Earth behind a heat shield and land beneath parachutes - just like Apollo.

By putting the crew capsule at the top of the CEV's rocket stack as Apollo designers did, astronauts will be safe from the sort of falling debris that doomed the shuttle Columbia and its crew in 2003.

The new ship will also have an Apollo-style rocket tower atop the capsule to whisk the crew cabin to safety in the event of a catastrophic rocket failure like Challenger's.

There will be important advances on Apollo, too, NASA says. The CEV will be three times larger than Apollo. It will carry four astronauts to the moon instead of two, and all four will fly to the surface while the vacant CEV orbits the moon. The capsule could carry six people to Mars.

Other improvements include solar panels, modern electronics, and "splashdown" on the California desert - not in the ocean. Each CEV will be reusable up to 10 times. And NASA says it has calculated a failure rate of 1 in 2,000 flights, 10 times better than the shuttles'.

But before astronauts can return to the moon, NASA scientists say they need to learn much more about the place, beginning with a good set of maps - especially of the poles, thought to be the most promising sites for a moon base. Existing polar maps are "quite poor," Connolly said.

That's because Apollo planners, in a race with the Soviet Union, looked only for the safest landing spots near the lunar equator, reachable from Cape Canaveral's latitude with the least amount of rocket power.

With more efficient and powerful engines, "we now have the ability to go anywhere on the moon, and ... the ability to come home at any time," said Connolly.

Map-making will be a critical task for NASA's $400 million "Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter" (LRO), now being developed at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

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