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Next up, capsule to the moon and Mars

CREW EXPLORATION VEHICLE: A new blunt-nosed ship would keep the foam-shedding fuel tank, NASA says.

By CURTIS KRUEGER, Times Staff Writer
Published August 10, 2005

Even as NASA studies whether it's safe to fly space shuttles again, the space agency is planning the spacecraft to replace it: a capsule to take Americans to the moon and Mars.

NASA has awarded two $28-million contracts to companies to start designing the new spaceship, which could fly as early as 2011.

Early plans call for launching a capsule on top of a rocket - an old-fashioned setup that looks more like an Apollo spacecraft from the 1960s.

But the revolution in spacecraft, some experts say, is more in destination than design.

For the first time in decades, NASA would focus astronauts on a mission of exploring different worlds, instead of trucking satellites into orbit to build the international space station.

"It's a little back to the philosophy of John Kennedy who said we do these things not because they're easy but because they're hard," said Louis D. Friedman, a former Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientist and executive director of the Planetary Society, a nonprofit that advocates for space travel. "I think it's a major change."

Today, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, a two-ton scientific probe, is scheduled to blast off as early as 7:54 a.m. to map Mars and set the stage for astronauts to explore the planet.

"The game plan is to define NASA's reach into low Earth orbit and beyond, up into the moon and to Mars for the next several decades anyway," said J.D. Harrington, spokesman for NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

There's no guarantee the new spaceship, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, will be built and fly. A future president could change course or Congress could deny funding.

"It's going to be a tough battle," said Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, who noted that "members of Congress have a right to be frustrated at some of the challenges NASA has had to overcome."

But he said the U.S. House's 383-15 vote in favor of President Bush's space exploration vision last month was a sign of progress.

Under Bush's plan, astronauts in the Crew Exploration Vehicle would set out for the moon and possibly build a lunar base. Astronauts also would learn about living in space, setting up the United States for arguably its most ambitious space mission ever - a three-year voyage to Mars and back.

NASA just suffered the embarrassment of grounding its space shuttle fleet, after 21/2 years of intensive engineering work failed to stop foam from falling off the shuttle's external tank. It did not hurt Discovery, but it proved deadly in the 2003 Columbia accident.

So how can NASA be planning missions that are even more ambitious?

Partly because the Crew Exploration Vehicle and its launch system do not rely as much on groundbreaking technology, unlike the complex and visionary space shuttle did when it debuted in 1981.

"We've learned that simplicity has a lot of advantages," said Feeney, a member of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.

NASA is holding off unveiling its concept, but details are leaking out. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said at a press conference last month that the agency is developing a new launch system that will rely on what the space shuttle already uses to blast away from Earth - the twin 15-story solid rocket boosters, the three main shuttle engines and even the large orange external tank.

"We think the existing components offer us huge cost advantages as opposed to starting from a clean sheet of paper," Griffin said.

NASA has suspended future space shuttle flights because foam continues shedding off the external tank, threatening to damage the main shuttle vehicle, called the orbiter.

So how can NASA rely on the same external tank, or a modified version, for a future launch system?

Because, Griffin said, the crew vehicle and cargo would be placed above the tank, not beside it as on the space shuttle.

"As long as we put the crew and valuable cargo above wherever the tanks are, we don't care what they shed," he said. "They can have dandruff all day long."

This launch system would be used to send the new Crew Exploration Vehicle into space, once it is designed and built.

Early plans envision the vehicle as a three-person capsule still able to dock with the international space station.

"It's a different approach. It's a much smaller vehicle" than the shuttle, said Brooks McKinney, manager of public relations for Northrop Grumman Corp. It has one of the contracts to develop preliminary spacecraft designs.

A larger Crew Exploration Vehicle could be built to go to the moon. The crew and cargo would be launched separately, atop different rockets, and then dock together in orbit, according to a recent Orlando Sentinel report.

The spacecraft will be an engineering challenge, even though they rely on some tried-and-true concepts. At the same time, the plan sidesteps some of the safety problems that have afflicted shuttles.

In Discovery's recent flight, most of the worry centered on potential damage to its thermal protection system - the fragile but heat-resisting skin that protects space shuttle orbiters from 3,000-degree heat when re-entering Earth's atmosphere.

Capsules wouldn't need this system, because they would use a simpler heat shield for protection.

On the other hand, the new launch system would rely on space shuttle solid rocket boosters, one of which exploded and caused the 1986 Challenger disaster. The boosters were studied after that accident and redesigned, and NASA says they have since proved highly reliable.

None of this means, however, that danger can be designed out of the spacecraft. Traveling to Mars and back could take three years, and involve many other hazards, such as the effect of long-term radiation from the sun.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1986, said he wants more specifics before endorsing the moon-to-Mars vision. He wants to make sure the international space station is completed and that the United States doesn't go long without a working spacecraft.

But "I think it's very interesting that what we're doing is we're coming back, it's like a big circle ... to the blunt-end capsule," he said.

Curtis Krueger can be reached at or 727 893-8232.

[Last modified August 10, 2005, 00:38:10]

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