Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
UPR doesn’t happen without YOU! Help us reach our goal today as we spring to the finish line. GIVE NOW

NASA Unveils Plans for Shuttle Replacement


NASA today unveiled plans for a new spacecraft to replace the space shuttle and carry astronauts to the moon by 2018. It's designed to be 10 times safer than the space shuttle. And as NPR's David Kestenbaum reports, it would lay the groundwork to send astronauts to Mars.


NASA's plan for how to get to the moon looks a lot like its Apollo plan from 40 years ago with one exception: Crew and cargo would leave the Earth on separate rockets. One rocket, shaped like a very tall pencil, would lift the crew into space while a separate massive rocket would lift the fuel and other gear for getting to the moon. Once in Earth orbit, the crew would rendezvous with the big stuff and head off to the moon. NASA administrator Michael Griffin.

Mr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (Administrator, NASA): Think of it as Apollo on steroids. We're talking about a capsule that weighs about 50 percent more than the Apollo command module, but can carry twice the number of people, can sustain itself for six months in lunar orbit, offers quite a lot more capability, to be honest.

KESTENBAUM: The capsule doesn't have any wings, and it would return old-school style, drifting to Earth on parachutes. Apollo splashed down in the ocean. Griffin imagines this new vehicle coming down on land, somewhere on the West Coast.

The new rockets aren't all that new. Engineers will use existing designs for the space shuttle rockets but stack them up differently. The plan may not sound terribly innovative, but Griffin says it's the option that makes the most sense, and it will be safer than the space shuttle.

Mr. GRIFFIN: Today's estimate of the reliability of the shuttle is one loss of vehicle in 220 missions. We believe this vehicle has in excess of a one-in-2,000 reliability, or unreliability, I should properly say. The two failure modes which caused the loss of Challenger and Columbia cannot happen on this vehicle due to the basic nature of its design.

KESTENBAUM: The new vehicle will be designed as the Apollo vehicles were, with the ability to allow the crew capsule to pop off during launch if there's a problem and hopefully return safely to Earth. And the crew capsule will sit on top of the rocket for launch, so falling debris from the fuel tanks can't hit it. That's what doomed the Columbia space shuttle.

Griffin said the first trip to the moon could happen in 2018, and he said the total cost between now and then would be about $104 billion. A reporter asked how the US could afford to send people into space given the vast sums the government will need to spend to deal with the damage from Hurricane Katrina. Griffin said he saw space as a long-term investment in the nation's future.

Mr. GRIFFIN: When we have a hurricane, we don't cancel the Air Force. We don't cancel the Navy. And we're not going to cancel NASA.

KESTENBAUM: The basic outlines of NASA's plan have been circulating in the space community for a month or more. David Akin runs the Space Systems Laboratory at the University of Maryland. He thinks trips to the moon might be done more cheaply. He imagines assembling the moon vehicle in orbit using eight smaller commercial rockets to launch the various parts. But cost wasn't the only factor NASA had to consider.

Mr. DAVID AKIN (Space Systems Laboratory, University of Maryland): I think this is the safest way to go back to the moon in terms of it's the simplest way to go back to the moon, and that's a good thing, I have to say as an engineer. The question is: Is there the political will in the country these days to support the price tag? And that's outside my field of expertise, but it's probably the question that's foremost on my mind.

KESTENBAUM: In the short term, the crew exploration vehicle, as it's called, would replace the shuttle and be able to travel to the International Space Station. NASA plans to retire the shuttle in 2010 and have the new vehicle ready for trips to Earth orbit by 2012. That would leave a two-year gap where the US won't have a vehicle for sending humans into space. David Kestenbaum, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Kestenbaum
David Kestenbaum is a correspondent for NPR, covering science, energy issues and, most recently, the global economy for NPR's multimedia project Planet Money. David has been a science correspondent for NPR since 1999. He came to journalism the usual way — by getting a Ph.D. in physics first.