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NASA unveils moon program

By Kate Tobin

An artist's concept of NASA's lunar lander



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National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Space Exploration
Space Programs

(CNN) -- NASA Administrator Michael Griffin rolled out NASA's plan for the future Monday, including new details about the spaceship intended to replace the shuttle and a timeline for returning astronauts to the moon in 2018.

The design for the new crew exploration vehicle (CEV) looks a lot like the Apollo-era spaceship that first took NASA to the moon a generation ago. It is a similarity that is not lost on Griffin.

"Think of it as Apollo on steroids," he told reporters at NASA headquarters in Washington.

Under the new NASA plan, a "moon shot" would actually require two launches, both using rockets derived from shuttle launch hardware.

One unmanned, heavy-lift rocket would transport a lunar lander plus supplies and other equipment to low-Earth orbit.

Afterward, a second rocket would carry a crew capsule capable of transporting up to six astronauts into a similar orbit. The two would dock with each other, and then head to the moon.

The first few missions are planned to put four astronauts on the surface of the moon for a week, while the unoccupied mothership orbits overhead. Once back in the crew capsule, the astronauts would return to Earth, with the capsule parachuting to a landing at Edwards Air Force Base in the California desert.

Griffin said the total cost of the program spread out over 13 years will be $104 billion in 2005.

"Unless the United States wants to get out of the manned space flight business completely, then this is the vehicle we need to be building," he said.

"And I don't hear anyone saying that the United States would be better off being out of space, when other nations are there."

He also dismissed speculation that federal spending on clean-up and rebuilding along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina might eat into funds that would otherwise be earmarked for the space agency.

"The space program is a long-term investment in our future. We must deal with our short-term problems while not sacrificing our long-term investments in our future. When we have a hurricane, we don't cancel the Air Force. We don't cancel the Navy. And we're not going to cancel NASA."

In the wake of the shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003, NASA officials announced that the agency intends to end the space shuttle program in 2010.

The CEV is expected to be ready for test flights around 2012. In the meantime, NASA intends to launch robotic missions to the moon in 2008 and 2011, to scout possible landing sites.

Unlike the spacecraft of the Apollo era, which could land only on the moon's equator, the new lunar lander should be able to set down anywhere on the moon's surface, NASA said.

NASA scientists said a landing site at the lunar south pole might be of particular interest because previous studies indicated the presence of ice there.

One goal of future moon missions will be to learn how to "live off the land," using the hydrogen and oxygen from water ice as well as other compounds from the lunar soil to make rocket fuel and other "consumables" necessary for long-term space missions.

Griffin on Monday did not lay out a timeline for the construction of a lunar base or a manned mission to Mars, both of which have been included previously as part of President Bush's "vision for space exploration."

He did indicate, however, that both of those activities remain on the table, to be pursued as the budget allows.

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