The U.S. space agency has released its plans for returning humans to the moon. It has set 2018 as the earliest launch date and developed a general design for a rocket that blends present technology with a look from the past.
The new spaceship will combine elements of the space shuttle launch system with a design reminiscent of Apollo craft that first landed astronauts on the moon in 1969. Crews of up to six people will be carried up to orbit in an Apollo-like command module atop a rocket similar to the one that boosts the shuttle. A larger version of the rocket would carry 25 metric tons of cargo, about the same amount as a shuttle. The crew module would separate from its rocket, be propelled by shuttle engines, and return to earth with parachutes like the old Apollo capsules.
NASA administrator Michael Griffin says his agency did not set out to mimic the Apollo-era design, but mission requirements led it in that direction.
"It's a significant advancement over Apollo," he said. "Much of it looks the same, but that's because the physics of atmospheric re-entry haven't changed recently. We really proved once again how much of it all the Apollo guys got right."
The new launch system will be bigger, with the ability to carry twice as many people in the command module as Apollo capsules, six instead of three. A separate landing vehicle would carry four astronauts to the moon's surface instead of two and allow them to stay up to a week, twice as long as Apollo landers.
"Think of it as Apollo on steroids," Mr. Griffin said. "We're talking about a capsule that weighs 50 percent more than the Apollo command module, but can sustain itself for six months in lunar orbit, offers quite a bit more capability."
NASA designed the new launch system to replace the aging shuttles because President Bush called last year for the United States to return to the moon by 2020 as the first step in an exploration program that would eventually land crews on Mars. The shuttle is capable of only circling Earth. Mr. Griffin says the new rocket will also be able to do this, allowing it to continue servicing the International Space Station and space telescopes like the shuttle. The goal is to have it ready for this purpose by 2012, leaving a two year gap after shuttles are phased out in 2010.
The NASA chief points out that the United States will develop and operate the spacecraft alone, but says Washington welcomes partnerships with other nations to explore the moon's surface.
"The quality of the activities that we perform on the moon, their extent, their nature, will be driven in our view largely by what nations elect to partner with us," he said. "The United States will be able to provide core transportation to and from the moon and we will hopefully combine that with the efforts of international partners to make a truly robust lunar exploration activity, something which is possible."
Some U.S. lawmakers are complaining about the new launch system's anticipated $104 billion price, measured in current dollars. But NASA says this is only slightly more than half of what Apollo development cost when factoring in inflation. Moreover, the agency is operating within a budget President Bush is not increasing for its new space mission, forcing it to hold down costs and to use existing shuttle rocket components.