Space Community Looks to the Next Lunar Vehicles

Artist's concept of Northrop Grumman-Boeing's proposed space vehicle.

Artist's concept of Northrop Grumman-Boeing's proposed space vehicle. The spacecraft contains a crew module, a service module and a launch-abort system. Northrop Grumman Corp. hide caption

itoggle caption Northrop Grumman Corp.

NASA is seeking designs for the next generation of space vehicles that will carry astronauts to the moon and back to Earth. Northrop Grumman and Boeing revealed their mockup for such a capsule.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

NASA and aerospace companies are finishing plans for returning humans to the moon. Now they have nothing big in place yet, but everybody it seems is carrying around a little plastic model of the piece that they're working on. Yesterday, Northrop Grumman, working with Boeing, revealed a small mockup of a capsule that could carry astronauts to lunar orbit and back to Earth. It came complete with a little plastic astronaut. Now this capsule design had no big surprises and it turns out that is exactly the way that NASA wants it. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports.

DAVID KESTENBAUM reporting:

The Northrop Grumman and Boeing team have been very secretive releasing only a picture of what astronauts would see looking out the window of the vehicle. It gave no clue to the overall design. Yesterday, at a press conference, a black cloth covered an object on the table. When the cloth was pulled back, there was a plastic model, gumdrop-shaped capsule like the one from the Apollo days but twice as large. It looked exactly like a picture NASA had put out weeks ago. Leonard Nicholson(ph) is with Northrop Grumman.

Mr. LEONARD NICHOLSON (Northrop Grumman): When we went back and looked at all the alternatives, we came to a very close conclusion NASA did. The guys that did it the first time in terms of how you re-enter from the moon into the Earth's atmosphere and stay safe and make sure you're going to make it, this shape is very effective.

KESTENBAUM: Nicholson and his colleagues are competing for the contract with a team led by Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin had originally proposed a more futuristic option, a vehicle that looked a bit like a glider. But NASA laid down the law, the crew exploration vehicle, as it's called, will be capsule-shaped and it will plop down in the desert on the West Coast. Lockheed is now working on a revised design. NASA has also laid out how it wants the capsule to get into space. Scott Horowitz has been carrying around model rockets in his briefcase. Horowitz is a former astronaut, now working for ATK Thiokol, the company that makes the booster rockets for the shuttle. The rocket that will launch the astronauts into orbit will be made from familiar pieces, all essentially stolen from the space shuttle program but stacked on top of each other. On the tippy-top sits the capsule itself.

Mr. SCOTT HOROWITZ (ATK Thiokol): To use a quote that one of the analysts uses is `the crew's on top where God intended them to be.' They're away from falling debris and nothing can fall on them and hurt them or hurt their thermal protection system.

KESTENBAUM: Horowitz has a second model in his briefcase, a larger rocket, also with familiar parts that would haul fuel, cargo and the lander necessary for a trip to the moon. Not much room for innovation here either. The limits of rocketry were worked out years ago.

It's kind of depressing how much fuel you need to get up to orbit, isn't it?

Mr. HOROWITZ: It is depressing. Ninety-five percent of your rocket, when you lift off, is fuel and tanks. It's one of those things that's just really tough is physics is physics and the Earth has a lot of gravity.

KESTENBAUM: Some observers have wondered why NASA didn't try something a little new, take a chance, say on a smaller, leaner rocket company trying out possibly less expensive approaches. Michael Griffin, NASA's administrator, says he doesn't have the money to let lots of contractors try out lots of ideas. Griffin spoke at a press conference last month.

Mr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (NASA Administrator): No one would ever say that the government and government prime contractor activities represent the most efficient use of the nation's resources. However, they do pretty much guarantee that we get a product. When we gamble on other suppliers, who do not yet exist, we don't know that we're going to get a product.

KESTENBAUM: NASA estimates putting new human footprints on the moon by 2018 will cost a hundred and four billion dollars. Congress will surely keep an eye on that number. David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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Correction Oct. 14, 2005

Scott Horowitz, who is interviewed in this story, is no longer at ATK Thiokol. He joined NASA last month as associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

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