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NASA Develops Plans for Moon-Mars Mission

May 31, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now, the mission of NASA. The space agency announced today that it plans to launch the latest shuttle mission next week. But even as NASA prepares for another launch, it’s making plans for a very different future.

NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden has our Science Unit report.

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: The space shuttle, the icon and workhorse of America’s human space program, is just three years from retirement, so NASA is now looking to the future, planning a whole new chapter in manned spaceflight, a whole new fleet of rockets and crew capsules, and a demanding new mission to send astronauts back to the Moon and eventually to mount a mission to Mars. It’s a vision that was laid out by President Bush in 2004.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: We will build new ships to carry man forward into the universe, to gain a new foothold on the moon, and to prepare for new journeys to worlds beyond our own.

TOM BEARDEN: NASA is currently designing the vehicles that the agency hopes will put astronauts back on the moon by 2020, almost 50 years after Neil Armstrong’s “giant leap for mankind.” Jeff Hanley manages NASA’s program to develop new manned spaceflight systems.

JEFF HANLEY, NASA: Mars is the edge of the edge of the frontier. And the frontier is where we really test the limits of human endurance and really push technology to the extent of being able to improve life back here for the rest of the planet’s inhabitants.

TOM BEARDEN: But NASA’s history is littered with ambitious programs that have been cancelled because of technical challenges and funding problems. Over a billion dollars was spent on an earlier project to replace the shuttle, dubbed VentureStar, before that program was killed in 2001. The new rockets and manned spacecraft will cost $104 billion according to NASA Director Michael Griffin, the man who has to persuade Congress to spend the money.

MICHAEL GRIFFIN, NASA Administrator: I hope to convince the Congress that that request is worth honoring and that NASA is a good place for them to spend their money, but this is a democratic, representative government, and we have absolutely no guarantee from year to year that any request of any type will be honored.

A new rocket and space capsule

TOM BEARDEN: Using money already appropriated, NASA engineers and contractors are working on the blueprints for a new rocket, called Aries One, and a new space capsule that will sit atop it, a vehicle called Orion. Orion would be used both for low-earth orbital missions, such as trips to the International Space Station, and for round-trip voyages to the moon.

It looks a lot like the Apollo spacecraft from the 1960s and '70s, but it's considerably bigger. Meant to carry between four to six astronauts, Orion will return to Earth via parachutes, instead of gliding to a landing like the space shuttle. NASA also hopes it will be cheaper than the space shuttle because of the tried-and-true capsule design and the use of off-the-shelf technology, such as on-board flight systems adopted from commercial aircraft.

JEFF HANLEY: Getting the operations cost and the production cost down is the key to making this system really and truly the next generation human space flight system.

TOM BEARDEN: A plywood mockup of an Orion capsule sits in a warehouse just across the street from NASA's Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston. It was built by Lockheed Martin, which has a $4 billion design contract. Engineer Marc Sommers says the model helps engineers figure out everything from where to put flight controls to how to give astronauts enough elbow room.

MARC SOMMERS, Lockheed Martin: Where we're standing right here actually would be a sixth seat, you know, for people when they're going to the space station. When they're going to the Moon for the lunar ops, then we'd just use these four seats right here.

TOM BEARDEN: Astronauts who have actually lived and worked in space have offered practical suggestions to the designers. Astronaut Lee Morin has logged over 259 hours in orbit.

LEE MORIN, Astronaut: The guys who built this have done a great job building this mock-up, but the first iteration of this was lower, because it was designed to be sitting here seated. And that's fine for the tasks when you're on your back, launching or re-entering, but for evaluating the windows and the docking, you're floating in space. And so you need to be able to represent, what's it like to be here floating and moving around? So that's more of a standing environment.

Testing new spacesuits

TOM BEARDEN: Astronauts going to the Moon and Mars also will need new spacesuits. These are being tested in the Arizona desert. NASA's Joe Kosmo is in charge of spacesuit development.

JOE KOSMO, NASA Engineer: Why do we need a new suit? Well, the shuttle suit wasn't designed for planetary environments, for walking. It's a fine suit for Zero-g operations and working in foot restraints, but it doesn't have the kind of mobility features that you really need for walking on a planetary surface. You need additional mobility in the hip and the waist area, and, of course, this suit represents that kind of an approach for developing some of that mobility technology.

TOM BEARDEN: And off the Florida Keys, astronauts live in an underwater lab for weeks at a time to simulate a future lunar habitat or a long voyage aboard a deep-space mission. Jeff Hanley says all of this has already started to reinvigorate NASA, giving it a new sense of purpose.

JEFF HANLEY: There is talent being applied across the agency that is excited about the prospect of doing something big, our generation's Monument Building, is doing something greater than ourselves.

TOM BEARDEN: But not everyone is completely happy about all this. A lot of scientists are deeply worried that competition for increasingly scarce dollars will starve space science, the satellites that study Earth's climate, robotic probes to the planets, and orbiting space telescopes.

LOUIS FRIEDMAN, The Planetary Society: Currently, the vision is siphoning some money away from space science and certainly from the space science planning that was being done several years ago.

Robotic missions killed or delayed

TOM BEARDEN: Louis Friedman is the executive director of the Planetary Society, a grassroots space advocacy group. The society complains that some $3 billion shifted to manned space flight programs from NASA's science budget has killed or delayed many robotic missions.

LOUIS FRIEDMAN: A mission to do Mars sample return has been cut out. A mission to find planets around other stars that are earthlike, terrestrial planets around other stars, has been cut out. So, yes, there are great losses to the exploration program, where, I mean, the robotic exploration program, as well as for the future of space exploration, as a result of the current requirements on funding.

FIONA HARRISON, California Institute of Technology: In our case, we were cut completely, just cancelled.

TOM BEARDEN: Physicist Fiona Harrison managed a $120 million project called NuSTAR, an orbiting telescope that would have searched the cosmos for black holes. When NASA cut her program, Harrison was forced to stop work at her Cal Tech lab and let dozens of researchers go.

FIONA HARRISON: Certainly, I wouldn't argue that one should sacrifice the manned program. The question is, how do you find the appropriate balance and exercise wise stewardship of the science program?

The battle for funding

TOM BEARDEN: So you think the cuts were unbalanced?

FIONA HARRISON: Yes, I think the cuts were unbalanced, and I think they were done quickly, without enough planning and without enough forethought and input from the community.

JEFF HANLEY: There are some hard choices to be made, no doubt.

TOM BEARDEN: Jeff Hanley acknowledges the ongoing battle for money among competing programs, but he says the percentage of NASA's budget for science has actually increased.

JEFF HANLEY: Science is as healthy as it's ever been in this agency. During the Apollo era, the science part of the NASA portfolio was something on the order of 15 percent to 20 percent. Today, science is a full third of the agency portfolio; it's around 32 percent of the agency portfolio, where it stands today.

TOM BEARDEN: But Hanley, like other NASA veterans, knows the space agency's soaring ambitions could be brought thudding back to Earth by cost overruns and changes in national budgetary priorities.