Before the end of the next decade, NASA astronauts will againexplore the surface of the moon. And this time, we're going to stay,building outposts and paving the way for eventual journeys to Mars andbeyond. There are echoes of the iconic images of the past, but it won'tbe your grandfather's moon shot.
This journey begins soon, with development of a new spaceship.Building on the best of Apollo and shuttle technology, NASA's creatinga 21st century exploration system that will be affordable, reliable,versatile, and safe.
The centerpiece of this system is a new spacecraft designed to carryfour astronauts to and from the moon, support up to six crewmembers onfuture missions to Mars, and deliver crew and supplies to theInternational Space Station.
The new crew vehicle will be shaped like an Apollo capsule, but itwill be three times larger, allowing four astronauts to travel to themoon at a time.
The new spacecraft has solar panels to provide power, and both thecapsule and the lunar lander use liquid methane in their engines. Whymethane? NASA is thinking ahead, planning for a day when futureastronauts can convert Martian atmospheric resources into methane fuel.
The new ship can be reused up to 10 times. After the craftparachutes to dry land (with a splashdown as a backup option), NASA caneasily recover it, replace the heat shield and launch it again.
Coupled with the new lunar lander, the system sends twice as manyastronauts to the surface as Apollo, and they can stay longer, with theinitial missions lasting four to seven days. And while Apollo waslimited to landings along the moon's equator, the new ship carriesenough propellant to land anywhere on the moon's surface.
Once a lunar outpost is established, crews could remain on the lunarsurface for up to six months. The spacecraft can also operate without acrew in lunar orbit, eliminating the need for one astronaut to staybehind while others explore the surface.
Safe and reliable
The launch system that will get the crew off the ground builds onpowerful, reliable shuttle propulsion elements. Astronauts will launchon a rocket made up of a single shuttle solid rocket booster, with asecond stage powered by a shuttle main engine.
A second, heavy-lift system uses a pair of longer solid rocketboosters and five shuttle main engines to put up to 125 metric tons inorbit -- about one and a half times the weight of a shuttle orbiter.This versatile system will be used to carry cargo and to put thecomponents needed to go to the moon and Mars into orbit. The heavy-liftrocket can be modified to carry crew as well.
Best of all, these launch systems are 10 times safer than theshuttle because of an escape rocket on top of the capsule that canquickly blast the crew away if launch problems develop. There's alsolittle chance of damage from launch vehicle debris, since the capsulesits on top of the rocket.
The Flight Plan
In just five years, the new ship will begin to ferry crew andsupplies to the International Space Station. Plans call for as many assix trips to the outpost a year. In the meantime, robotic missions willlay the groundwork for lunar exploration. In 2018, humans will returnto the moon. Here's how a mission would unfold:
A heavy-lift rocket blasts off, carrying a lunar lander and a"departure stage" needed to leave Earth's orbit. The crew launchesseparately, then docks their capsule with the lander and departurestage and heads for the moon.
Three days later, the crew goes into lunar orbit. The fourastronauts climb into the lander, leaving the capsule to wait for themin orbit. After landing and exploring the surface for seven days, thecrew blasts off in a portion of the lander, docks with the capsule andtravels back to Earth. After a de-orbit burn, the service module isjettisoned, exposing the heat shield for the first time in the mission.The parachutes deploy, the heat shield is dropped and the capsule setsdown on dry land.
'Into the Cosmos'
With a minimum of two lunar missions per year, momentum will buildquickly toward a permanent outpost. Crews will stay longer and learn toexploit the moon's resources, while landers make one way trips todeliver cargo. Eventually, the new system could rotate crews to andfrom a lunar outpost every six months.
Planners are already looking at the lunar south pole as a candidatefor an outpost because of concentrations of hydrogen thought to be inthe form of water ice, and an abundance of sunlight to provide power.
These plans give NASA a huge head start in getting to Mars. We willalready have the heavy-lift system needed to get there, as well as aversatile crew capsule and propulsion systems that can make use ofMartian resources. A lunar outpost just three days away from Earth willgive us needed practice of "living off the land" away from our homeplanet, before making the longer trek to Mars.
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