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(Soundbite of NASA Moon Landing 1968)

Lieutenant NEIL A. ARMSTRONG (Commander, NASA's Apollo 11 Mission): That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Remember those historic words? It's been nearly 40 years since NASA first put a man on the Moon. Six Apollo missions took astronauts there, and the last manned lunar landing took place in 1972. Now, after all these years, NASA is gearing up for its return, and this time, it's supposed to be bigger and better than ever. The project is called the Constellation Program, and unlike like the Apollo missions to the Moons, it's a two-step process. One rocket will carry the gear and equipment, and a second will carry the crew.

This week, NASA unveiled its latest redesign of the spacecraft that's supposed to carry astronauts to the Moon in these new missions. But not everyone in the space community is thrilled with the developments. Some say NASA's proposed moon missions are a waste of time, and the agency should be focusing resources on exploring new frontiers, going where no one has gone before. Here to break it down for us is Frank Morring, the senior space technology editor for Aviation Week. Hey, Frank.

Mr. FRANK MORRING JR. (Deputy Managing Editor, Space, Aviation Week): How are you?

MARTIN: Doing well, thanks. So, in the simplest terms possible, Frank, for us, break down the process. There are two separate rockets, one for gear, one for astronauts. Why does it have to happen this way?

Mr. MORRING: Well, the idea of separating the crew and cargo actually came out of the post mortem on the Columbia accident. The Columba accident investigation board recommended that approach in the future, rather than putting everything in one vehicle like the space shuttle.

And so what NASA has come up for its next step, beyond low Earth orbit, is one vehicle called Orion, which would carry a crew - it looks a lot like the old Apollo capsule except bigger, it carries as many as six people - and a rocket about the size of the Saturn V that was used during the Apollo program called Ares V, which would take up the lunar lander, which they've named Altair, and the equipment that they would need to operate on the Moon's surface, along with the stage that would actually carry - push them from the Earth to the Moon.

MARTIN: So, this week, the big news was that they unveiled a redesign of that Ares V spacecraft - or I'm sorry, the Ares V rocket that's to carry the spacecraft. What changes did they make to the rocket?

Mr. MORRING They were - basically, they had known for some time that their going-in design was not really powerful enough to get everything off the ground, and so, they added an engine that now has six rocket engines, and they're the same rocket engines that are used on the Delta IV that is flying today, just with an upgrade. And they also lengthened the solid rocket booster.

There are two of those, just like there are on the shuttle, and actually, they're derived from the shuttle booster. And they made it - they are broken into segments. It was five segments. Now it's five and a half segments. So that gives them a little bit more lift, and it also makes room inside the main - what they call the core stage for a bigger liquid-hydrogen tank, which means more fuel, which means that the engines can burn longer.

MARTIN: OK, so, all of this is to get to the Moon, but eventually, as I understand it, this is all a precursor to actually getting to Mars. Can you explain why we have to go to the Moon again before we get to Mars?

Mr. MORRING Well, the idea, as set out in the current what they call Vision for Space Exploration, is to do a step-by-step process. First, you get out of low Earth orbit. That's where we are today with the shuttle and space station. Go to the Moon and learn how to operate on a surface in gravity, but an extremely harsh space environment. And the advantage of that is, one, it's closer, so it's relatively easier to get to. If there's a problem, you can get home in a couple of days, and it's sort of like a practice field.

MARTIN: Now, there is a bit of a controversy, though, I understand. Reading up on this, there are folks out there who say going back to the Moon is a waste of time. Been there, done that. We need of focus our resources on getting where we ultimately want to go. What are - do those arguments - are those salient points? What are their arguments?

Mr. MORRING Well, it is exactly as you stated them. The real excitement this week is actually the robotic exploration of Mars. There's a little robotic backhoe called Phoenix digging into the, what I guess you'd call the permafrost near the Martian north pole, coming up with some really interesting information that we've never had before. There's a lot of the Moon that we don't know about either.

Our visits to the Moon were very short and limited, and the new systems are being designed to open up the entire lunar surface, which has a lot of very interesting scientific information .Some of the original Earth's crust is probably sitting on the surface of the Moon, or close to it, and - where, on Earth, it's been eroded. There are scientific arguments, pro and con, both for going to the Moon and also going straight on to Mars. NASA's view, I think, is that it's, you know, the resources to go straight on to Mars and to develop the technology to do that are probably, you know, beyond their pocketbook right now.

MARTIN: What about the argument that future lunar exploration serves to benefit all the infrastructure that has built up over the years in the wake of the Apollo missions, and that if you went into Mars or refocused resources, people would be out of a job? So they're fighting that.

Mr. MORRING That actually is more relevant to the space shuttle. The space shuttle's - the latest figures are, once they retire the space shuttle, which they're going to do in about two years, there are only 10 flights left on the manifest, something like three to 4,000 people will lose their jobs at Kennedy Space Station alone. And whether they can be picked up later by these new vehicles, to help process these new big vehicles, and launch them is really an open question. One of the reasons for moving on beyond the shuttle, aside from safety, is to lower that, what they call standing army, needed to process it, and of course, ultimately, that means people lose their jobs.

MARTIN: OK, so, getting back to these future lunar missions. We've seen the redesigns. We're hearing about all this newfangled technology that's going to get us up there and the crew. How long does it take? What's the timeline? When can we expect these lunar missions to take place?

Mr. MORRING: Well, the news this week was actually that in a study of what they call architecture for getting back to the Moon, they have concluded that with this larger Ares V - or more capable Ares V, and enough money - which is an important point - they can put people back on the surface of the Moon for - the first visit would be a seven-day visit with four people by 2020.

MARTIN: 2020. OK. We'll just have to wait. We'll be waiting by our TVs as our grandparents, great-grandparents, did. Frank Morring, senior space technology editor for Aviation Week. Hey, Frank, thanks very much. We appreciate it.

Mr. MORRING: Thank you.

MIKE PESCA, host:

Coming up on the old show, did you know that one-half of one percent of librarians are black men?

MARTIN: I did not.

PESCA: Now you do. Take that with you, do with it what you will, and find out a little bit more about it after the break. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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