It's been an awfully long time since NASA's manned space program had a truly good idea. The shuttle has done some wondrous work, but has cost too much and achieved too little. The space station continues to hemmorhage money and return not a whit of good science. So space watchers had good reason to be dubious yesterday when NASA at last pulled back the curtain on its plans for the next generation of spacecraft intended to return human beings back to the moon. As it turned out, the plan is an awfully good onesort of.
If there's one thing the twin tragedies of the shuttles Challenger and Columbia taught NASA, it's that when a spaceship ain't broke, the last thing you want to try to do is fix it. The Apollo moonships and the Saturn rockets that launched them had an extraordinary safety and success record, relying on the old concept of throwaway parts: When one stage of a rocket is spent, dump it in the ocean; when you're through with your lunar lander, leave most of it on the moon.
The shuttle was an attempt to change all that, with a spacecraft that is almost entirely reusable. But a ship that must repeatedly fly back and forth between Earth and space takes an awful beating, requiring it to spend far more time in the shop being maintained than it ever did in orbit. What's more, the configuration of such a machinewith the rockets strapped directly to the sides of the crew vehicleputs fuel, debris and humans in awfully close proximity. Fourteen people have died as a result of that lethal propinquity.
The new moonships fix all that. NASA administrator Michael Griffin has called the new generation of spacecraft "Apollo on steroids" and that's a good description. The command and service moduleswhich will carry the crewdo look like pumped-up Apollos. And the spindly lunar lander is a decidedly more muscular version of the earlier LEM.
The boosters are mostly traditional throwaways, and the best parts of the shuttle will be cannibalized to build them. A mammoth new heavy-lift cargo booster will be assembled out of two of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters and up to six of its liquid fuel main engines. This would be used to put an unmanned lunar lander and a small upper stage rocket into Earth orbit. A smaller booster, made of a single solid rocket and a single liquid-fueled engine, would then launch the four-person crew in the command module. The astronauts would dock with the lunar lander, light the upper-stage engine, and head out to the moon. Once there, all four of them would be able to descend to the surface, leaving the command module to fly robotically aboveunlike the old Apollos, in which two astronauts performed the moonwalk and one waited in the car 60 miles above.
The plan makes good, hard engineering sense, but as always with NASA, the problem is less in the engineering than in the politics. For one thing, the agency says it will take no more than $104 billion over 13 years to pull the project off, necessitating no increase in NASA funding. That sounds like way too free a lunch. The next manned NASA program that comes in on time and under budget will be the first. The space stationeasily NASA's biggest fiscal and political disasterwill cost more than 12 times its original projections.
Just as important, there's a whiff of dithering around that 13-year time frame. It was in 1961 that President Kennedy challenged the U.S. to go to the moon; eight years later we were leaving footprints thereand that was before we'd even put a man in orbit. It shouldn't take so long to go back. A contemporary program with a 13-year deadline is precisely the kind of undertaking that can be frittered into nothing if future administrations lose the interest or the revenue to keep pursuing it.
What's more, the new proposal is ostensibly part of the Bush administration's grand moon-Mars initiative announced in early 2004. But Mars is not mentioned anywhere in the plans. Nor is the science the crews would perform once they get to the moon. If NASAnot to mention the White Housewants taxpayers to take this plan seriously, they must tighten it up with a deadline that demands greater focus and a specific program of both lunar and Martian exploration. This week's plan is a very good start. Skeptical spacewatchers are right to demand more.