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The Sciences

America Makes a Crooked Beeline for the Moon


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NASA is fighting to rebuild its credibility with fiberglass and Velcro—the materials holding together a mock-up of the agency's upcoming manned space capsule, the Crew Exploration Vehicle. The skeletal model is the first hard evidence of NASA's plan to send humans back to the moon, then on to Mars.

Since President Bush endorsed this agenda in 2004, NASA engineers have been moving full steam ahead, drafting everything from launcher to space suit. Sending humans on an extended expedition to the moon will require the launch of a 1.8-million-pound rocket. The ship must then operate reliably in orbit there, unmanned, for up to six months while its lander carries the crew to the lunar surface and back. The proposed main rocket is powered by liquid oxygen and methane, which could theoretically be extracted from soil on the moon or Mars. Whether this novel fuel can do the job is being sorted out in the labs of NASA's Glenn Research Center and Marshall Space Flight Center. On return to Earth, the astronauts will be protected by a heat shield that chars and burns—an older, more reliable technology than the shuttle's tiles. This spring two teams will begin testing upgraded shield materials. How the ship will land—air bags? retro-rockets?—is still up in the air.

Also up in the air is how NASA will afford all this technology. The costs of wrapping the space-shuttle program leave the agency with a projected shortfall of several billion dollars over the next few years. "Right now it's a go-as-you-can-afford-to-pay program," says agency spokesman Kelly Humphries. "It's designed so that the schedule can adjust to the budget." NASA's critics remain dubious. In a November hearing, House Science Committee chairman Sherwood Boehlert warned, "Before NASA promises that it can accelerate development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle . . . it ought to be able to demonstrate where the money will come from, and right now it can't."

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