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NASA unveils moon program

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An artist's concept of NASA's lunar lander.

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WASHINGTON (Reuters/CNN) -- NASA unveiled plans on Monday to return humans to the moon by 2018 at a cost of $104 billion.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin showcased a mission to the moon in an Apollo-style capsule sitting atop rockets fashioned from shuttle components.

"The space program is a long-term investment in our future," Griffin said.

The new lunar program would begin in 2018 by landing four astronauts on the moon for a seven-day stay.

The last lunar landing was Apollo 17 in 1972.

The centerpiece of NASA's moonshot is the new spaceship known as the crew exploration vehicle, or CEV. It will be "designed to carry four astronauts to and from the moon, support up to six crew members on future missions to Mars, and deliver crew and supplies to the international space station," according to NASA's Web site.

The new crew vehicle and lander will be similar to those used during the Apollo missions, but three times larger.

Griffin said building a larger rocket system will allow for landing anywhere on the lunar surface. The Apollo missions only had enough fuel to land along the moon's equator.

NASA hopes to have the rocket system ferrying crew and supplies to the space station in five years, according to NASA's Web site.

The scenario was presented to White House officials last week before its formal unveiling to the public on Monday.

Even before the official announcement, there was criticism from Capitol Hill over the cost of the lunar program, given U.S. government commitments to the Iraq war and recovery from Hurricane Katrina.

"This plan is coming out at a time when the nation is facing significant budgetary challenges," Rep. Bart Gordon, a Tennessee Democrat on the House Science Committee, said in a statement. "Getting agreement to move forward on it is going to be heavy lifting in the current environment, and it's clear that strong presidential leadership will be needed."

Bush's vision for space

President Bush's plan to send Americans back to the moon by 2020 and eventually on to Mars has drawn skepticism since its unveiling in January 2004, less than a year after the February 1, 2003, shuttle Columbia disaster.

Bush's vision for space exploration called for the development of a system to replace the aging shuttles, a goal that appears even more important given problems with the shuttle fleet's return to flight.

The same problems with falling debris that doomed Columbia recurred in July with the launch of Discovery, prompting the grounding of the shuttle fleet even as Discovery continued to fly its mission. A September shuttle mission was delayed until November and then to March.

Some $1.1 billion damage by Hurricane Katrina to NASA facilities in Louisiana and Mississippi could push the launch date back further still.

Bush's plan also mandated the completion of the international space station, but without shuttles to do the heavy lifting, that process has been on hold. A pair of Russian vehicles -- the space taxi Soyuz and the space delivery van Progress -- have been ferrying people and material.

Since the fatal Columbia disaster, only two-person crews have stayed aboard the station, rather than the normal three-person crew.

With the shuttles slated for retirement in 2010, Griffin has estimated that the number of construction flights to the station could be pared from its earlier estimate of 28 to 15.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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