- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2005

NASA has outlined its new “Vision for Space Exploration” plan that will culminate in the return of astronauts to the moon by 2020 and the infrastructure to send people to Mars.

The plan calls for the retirement of the space shuttle in 2010 and a new 14-person Crew Exploration Vehicle, which could fly as early as 2012 if additional funding becomes available or 2014 within NASA’s current budget.

“This is the best mission statement NASA’s had in 40 years,” NASA administrator Michael Griffin said.

Externally, the new vehicle will look like the 1960s’ Apollo spacecraft.

“Think of it as Apollo on steroids,” Mr. Griffin said. “Very Apollo-like although upgraded technology.”

The new vision for NASA came about primarily in response to the Columbia space shuttle accident more than two years ago. According to investigators, one of the root causes of the disaster was the lack of vision and goals. The Bush administration responded with an announcement in January 2004 to retire the shuttle and for NASA to go back to the moon and on to Mars.

To accomplish these goals, NASA will spend $104 billion over 13 years until the first new footprints are made on the moon.

“This architecture absolutely fits within the funding guidelines the administration has provided,” Mr. Griffin said.

One key factor to reduce up-front costs is to reuse space shuttle components. While the space shuttle orbiter is being retired, new versions of its solid rocket boosters, external tank, and shuttle main engines will be used.

But this cost-saving measure is not without its challenges. NASA has had to find new manufacturers when existing subcontractors can no longer manufacture certain parts. Regulations change and older materials may not be easily available, often with unexpected problems and potential safety hazards. For example, an environmentally friendly putty spread between solid rocket motor segments in 1996 nearly led to the burn-through of the rocket’s case.

Relying on older designs where many of the components are aging or can become obsolete has also raised the concerns of engineers.

“As NASA continues to use the solid boosters and external tank there will be more aging problems — there’s no way to avoid it,” NASA engineer Robert Stevens said.

The plan promises to be a windfall for three existing aerospace contractors. Lockheed-Martin manufactures the external tanks, ATK Thiokol manufactures the solid rocket boosters and Boeing’s Rocketdyne division builds the shuttle main engines. Still to be determined are the contractors who will build the Crew Exploration Vehicle.


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