The United States has released plans for manned spacecraft to return to the moon by 2020. It's been more than 30 years since the last man set foot on the lunar surface.
On Monday, the U.S Space agency, NASA unveiled the spacecraft that will succeed the Space Shuttle program, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, or CEV. The spacecraft will be designed to carry four astronauts to and from the moon, support up to six crew members on a future mission to Mars and deliver crew and supplies to the International Space Station.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin defended the $104 billion dollar lunar program, saying it is intended to make President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration a reality.
Mr. Griffin said, "Unless the United States wants to get out of the manned space flight business completely, then this is the vehicle we need to be building. And I don't hear anyone saying that the United States would be better off being out of space when other nations are there."
The price of the new lunar program will be spread out over 13 years and adjusted for inflation represents about 55% of what the Apollo space program cost in the 1970s. The new spacecraft will be built with shuttle booster rockets, fuel tanks and main engines, and resemble the ships of the Apollo missions.
Mr. Griffin said, "It is very Apollo-like. It may have a different heat shield. It may have a different surface contact system, But the outer mold line is very Apollo like, except larger. Think of it as Apollo on steroids."
Administrator Griffin says the CEV will be 10 times safer than the shuttle, due to an escape rocket on top of the capsule that can quickly blast the CEV if problems such as an explosion or fire, develop during takeoff.
NASA estimates the failure rate for the space shuttle program is 1 in 220. Of the 114 shuttle flights launched since 1981, two shuttles have been destroyed and 14 astronauts have perished. In July, the shuttle fleet was again grounded after a successful mission by Discovery until engineers solve the recurring problem of debris hitting the shuttle's external tanks on liftoff. There had been a two year lapse in shuttle missions after insulating foam falling from Columbia's external fuel tank was blamed for the death of it's crew in 2003. Space shuttle missions are scheduled to end by 2010.
The earliest an unmanned lunar vehicle could be launched is 2012, and that depends on whether the lunar program will continue to be funded. The first manned flight could set off for the moon by 2018, and no later than 2020, the year President Bush has targeted for America's return to the moon. Once the program is up and running, NASA hopes to fund a minimum of two missions per year with the goal of building a permanent lunar outpost.