A retro look to next US spacecraft

NASA's plan, unveiled Monday, is to replace the shuttle with a vehicle that borrows much from Apollo.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's back to the future for the US manned spaceflight program.

After 25 years of spectacular successes and tragic failures using the winged space shuttles, NASA is opting for the tried and true: Just put a capsule on top of a rocket, put people or cargo into it, and launch it.

NASA's plan for replacing the shuttle, unveiled Monday, calls for launching future space vehicles in the same way that was used during the successful Apollo program of the 1960 and '70s, but borrows the shuttle's concept of a reusable craft.

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That new craft would be the cosmic equivalent of the suburban minivan - a "crew-exploration vehicle" capable of carrying six people to the International Space Station, or four people to the moon, or roughly 3-1/2 tons of cargo. It's designed to ride a parachute system back to land, but must also survive an Apollo-like splashdown. Over the long term, the CEV must also be capable of handling a trip to Mars.

If all goes well, its first flight to the space station would launch in 2011. In keeping with President Bush's vision for space exploration, the first mission to the moon is slated for 2018.

The CEV's configuration - a command module, service module, and lander - has an Apollo-era look, and it's not by accident, says Michael Griffin, NASA's administrator. After NASA looked at a range of configurations, he says, it's amazing to see "how much of it all the Apollo guys got right."

If the plan has a quaint, haven't-we-done-this-before quality to some, other space enthusiasts say the blueprint represents a welcome change for human space exploration. "For the first time in 3-1/2 decades, the federal government plans to leave low-Earth orbit. That's a major shift," says George Whitesides of the National Space Society.

The effort marks a technological turning point, adds Ray Williamson, research professor at The George Washington University's Space Policy Institute in Washington. "Basically, we've recognized that it's better to get the job done than to try doing it with flashy technology," he says. "You don't need a Ferrari to take your groceries home."

That's not to say the program faces smooth sailing technologically. Though the rockets have a familiar-looking shell, they'll use state-of-the-art technologies inside, and engineers won't lack for design challenges, analysts say. Low cost, safety, and reliability are vital - features the shuttle, despite being a marvel of aerospace engineering, has not delivered.

Still, NASA seems to be taking a minimalist approach, says Keith Cowing of NASAWatch, a website that tracks the agency's developments. "This is pretty conservative. There are no plans for a big moon base. It's almost like we're trying to prove we can still do it."

The biggest risk with the new plan is financial, analysts say. Hurricane Katrina and continued problems with the debris falling from the shuttle's external fuel tank during launch have saddled NASA with unanticipated costs. The debris problem has forced NASA to delay shuttle launches until next year. This could postpone the orbiters' retirement and the savings the agency had hoped to gain from mothballing the fleet.

The program's overall cost is $104 billion through the first lunar mission - roughly 55 percent of what Apollo cost, Mr. Griffin says. The program is designed on a go-as-you-pay basis, he adds.

Help may come from a new generation of entrepreneurs who are sinking personal fortunes and venture capital into rockets designed to be more reliable and cheaper to build and operate than the launchers used for unmanned missions in the US today. NASA appears ready to give those fledgling companies an opportunity to show what they can do, says Mr. Whitesides, and possibly contract with them for space station missions.

NASA's track record for giving lawmakers accurate costs estimates or for controlling overruns hasn't been stellar. "I am anxious to get more information on the program's expected costs," says Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, the House Science Committee's ranking Democrat.

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