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NASA Launch Begins Effort to Return Man to the Moon

June 19, 2009 at 6:35 PM EDT
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NASA launched two satellites to the moon last week, the first step toward its goal of returning a human to the lunar surface. At the start of this new effort, though, a debate has been ignited at the space agency over how best to do so. Tom Bearden reports.

JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, the future of the American manned spaceflight program. NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden has our Science Unit report.

RADIO OPERATOR: And lift off, America’s first step of a lasting return to the moon.

TOM BEARDEN: The launch of two satellites bound for the moon yesterday marked the beginning of NASA’s new plan for human spaceflight. The spacecraft will look for potential landing sites, measure radiation, and search for water.

And NASA is moving ahead on a new launch vehicle for astronauts, a prototype of which is now being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. All of this comes as NASA stands at a major crossroads.

NASA has been assembling spacecraft in this building for more than 40 years, and they plan to continue to do so with a program designed to return astronauts to the moon and eventually to Mars. Exactly how they will do that, and whether they will do it at all, is now under review in Washington.

NORMAN AUGUSTINE, chair, Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Committee: We’re not the first to look at the human spaceflight program by a long shot.

TOM BEARDEN: It started this week, when former Lockheed Martin Chairman Norman Augustine opened the first of a series of public hearings as part of a presidential review of NASA’s plans.

NORMAN AUGUSTINE: I think this is going to be a very tough job, because people really care about space. It’s something that people get emotionally attached to. And people have different opinions, and they hold them strongly, and we’re getting a lot of advice, which we welcome. Unfortunately, most of it’s conflicting and contradictory. So wish us well; we’ll need some good luck here.

TOM BEARDEN: It was four years ago that President Bush set out a vision for NASA to return astronauts to the moon by 2020 and establish a base there in preparation for going to Mars.

But the space shuttle fleet, which has been taking astronauts into orbit since 1981, is scheduled to retire next year. The new vehicles won’t be ready until 2015 at the earliest.

That worries Senator Bill Nelson, a former space shuttle astronaut. He says America will have to buy seats on Russian spacecraft to be able to use the recently completed $100 billion International Space Station that the U.S. largely built and paid for.

SEN. BILL NELSON, D-Fla.: It’s my hope that our foreign relations with the Russians are going to get better, but who knows what the geopolitics is going to be later on in this coming decade?

Constellation vs. Jupiter Direct

TOM BEARDEN: President Obama charged the Augustine commission to examine NASA's design for future manned missions, which the agency calls Constellation.

The design consists of a new solid-fuel rocket called Ares I, which would boost a new crew capsule called Orion into Earth orbit. To be developed later: A new heavy-lift rocket called Ares V would launch the additional hardware necessary for Moon and Mars missions.

Jeff Hanley is Constellation's program manager.

JEFF HANLEY, manager, Constellation Program: The heavy-lift rocket is what is needed to be able to do the exploration missions, the human exploration missions that we've been asked to do. It's not just NASA's plan; this is the nation's plan in response to national policy.

This solution, the one that we're on, seemed at the time, based on all the engineering assessments that we did, to be the most effective path.

TOM BEARDEN: The commission heard presentations of many possible alternatives to Constellation: commercially built crew launch systems, different rocket configurations, and existing expendable military rockets, like the one used to launch the lunar orbiter yesterday.

Working from an apartment near the Kennedy Space Center, a 33-year-old space enthusiast named Ross Tierney coordinates a group that believes NASA should use existing shuttle components instead of building Ares I. They call their proposal Jupiter Direct.

A transplanted British citizen and NASA fan, Tierney was excited about Constellation at first.

ROSS TIERNEY, coordinator, Jupiter Direct: One of the things that we're going to do is remove all the parts for the external tank there, specific to the shuttle.

TOM BEARDEN: But the more he looked at it, the more it didn't seem to add up, so he went to an online chat room to compare notes.

ROSS TIERNEY: I started asking some questions on a discussion forum that had a lot of engineers. And I asked just a few questions, and eventually I asked the simple question: What would happen if you weren't to build two launch vehicles and you were to build one roughly halfway between the two sizes? That sparked an enormous amount of feedback from a lot of the engineers.

This is the tool that's already gone.

TOM BEARDEN: Tierney says that group of engineers has ballooned to nearly 70, many of whom work for NASA by day and for Jupiter Direct by night. But he says they won't go public because they're afraid of being fired.

One member agreed to talk to us if we concealed his identity.

NASA EMPLOYEE: There's a tremendous amount of discontent. It's very difficult to keep working on a project that you know won't work the way they originally thought it would work.

'Potentials for a disaster'

TOM BEARDEN: The dissident engineers are particularly concerned about the Ares I design, which is scheduled for a test flight later this year.

But the Jupiter Direct team says NASA has never flown such a tall, slender, solid-fuel rocket and that as the fuel is consumed the vehicle might begin to vibrate uncontrollably.

Are the problems with Ares I something that might eventually lead to a disaster?

NASA EMPLOYEE: If you want to call the vehicle striking the tower at launch, if you're talking the vehicle shaking itself apart, if you want to talk about the vehicle losing control at liftoff, if you want to talk about the vehicle structurally collapsing in flight, yes, I'd call those all potentials for a disaster.

TOM BEARDEN: Jeff Hanley says the vibration issue has already been addressed.

JEFF HANLEY: We have a set of isolation springs. Basically, they're like a cushion that will isolate the vibrating first stage from the rest of the rocket so that we basically detune the rocket.

TOM BEARDEN: And NASA says it has already considered and rejected configurations similar to the Jupiter Direct design.

LEROY CHIAO, former NASA astronaut: Who are you guys? I mean, is there a list of folks who are...

TOM BEARDEN: Augustine panel member Dr. Leroy Chiao, a former astronaut and former commander of the International Space Station, questioned the group's engineering credentials, but Tierney says the group's members are the ones actually designing Constellation.

Chairman Augustine said the committee would seriously consider all proposals, including Jupiter Direct.

Justifying the cost

NORMAN AUGUSTINE: Well, I think any group, you've got to take them at face value and try to judge whether they make sense. I've often thought of, when I worked at the Pentagon years ago, if Albert Einstein had come into my office and said, "I've got this great idea: You'll split the atom, and you'll end the war," would I have thrown him out?

TOM BEARDEN: NASA has already spent four years and $7 billion on Constellation. The commission would have to consider whether that money would be wasted if they decide NASA ought to go in a different direction.

They will also have to consider what further delay would mean to NASA's workforce, thousands of whom might have to be laid off.

And the commission will undoubtedly be asked why America needs to spend $150 billion to go back to the moon in the first place. After all, spectacular high-resolution pictures taken 40 years ago are only now being seen by the public, and scientists are still studying the lunar rocks retrieved in the Apollo program.

Augustine says it all ultimately comes down to what the American people are willing to pay for.

NORMAN AUGUSTINE: Well, I hate to boil it down to money, but, frankly, money is the driver, as is most everything else. With a few exceptions, we have the technology or the knowledge that we could go to Mars if we wanted with humans. We could put a telescope on the moon if we wanted. The technology is by and large there. It boils down to, what can we afford?

TOM BEARDEN: The commission will hold several more hearings around the country and expects to submit its recommendations to the president at the end of August.