Three decades after the last Apollo flew, new American crews may walk the lunar soil. Here's how they'll go.
It's not easy to forget the moon. The images of NASA's celebrated lunar landings are lasered onto the national retina, and perhaps no two things are better remembered than the sister ships that made the trips: the cone-shaped Apollo command module and the leggy lunar lander. If NASA has its way, those kinds of spacecraft will be flying again soon. They will not, however, be your daddy's moonships.
In January 2004 President Bush announced his plan to send Americans back to the moon and onto Mars. Those bold goals—which NASA estimates it could achieve by 2018 and 2030, respectively—would at last free the nation of the 25-year drudgery of the shuttle program. The idea raised eyebrows--not least because of its price tag, distant target dates and suspicious initial timing, at the start of the 2004 election cycle. In the two years since, however, funding has been forthcoming and design work has begun, with aerodynamic testing on scale models under way at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. While political and fiscal obstacles could still scuttle the whole plan, the ships taking shape in the NASA labs are winning deserved raves.
The thing that has made the shuttles such lethal disappointments is that they have tried to do too many things--fly like a spacecraft, land like an airplane, haul cargo like a truck. Part of the reason the Apollo ships succeeded was that they had an exceedingly clear goal: to fly to the moon and strictly obey the laws of simplicity and safety on the way. Both ships were also wisely mounted at the top of the booster that lifted them off the ground--keeping them away from the fire and foam that killed Challenger and Columbia.
The new ships will follow the old rules. The centerpiece of the stack will be the prosaically named Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), a descendant of the Apollo command module but for a few significant differences. For one thing, it will be bigger, able to carry four astronauts comfortably and six a bit more snugly--twice the load of the three-man Apollos.
For another thing, it will be equipped with solar panels, a sensible addition in a sun-drenched place like the inner solar system--and one that reduces the demands on fuel cells and batteries. It will also be able to either splash down in the water as the Apollos did or thump down under a parachute on dry desert. Finally, modern composite materials and computers will improve on the ungainly weight and clanking brain of the older ships. "It's like comparing today's 737s with the ones that flew in 1967," says Scott Horowitz, an associate administrator for NASA. "Put them side by side, and they look alike. But they're entirely different aircraft."