for National Geographic News
Today NASA unveiled plans to return humans to the moon by 2018. Astronauts are expected to travel in a new spaceship that combines technologies developed for the space shuttle and Apollo programs.
The last lunar landing was during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
The new plan will cost about 104 billion U.S. dollars over the next 13 years and help President George W. Bush achieve the vision for space exploration that he outlined on January 14, 2004. At that time Bush said he wanted humans back on the moon by 2020.
The centerpiece of NASA's return to the moon is a new spacecraft dubbed the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). The CEV (see photo) is designed to carry four astronauts to the moon for stays of up to seven daysuntil a moon base allows for longer expeditions (watch NASA animation depicting a future moon mission).
The spacecraft can be piloted remotely. It can also be configured to ferry cargo loads and crews to the International Space Station and may eventually carry up to six astronauts to Mars.
NASA did not establish a timetable for missions to Mars in the announcement, which was made today in Washington, D.C.
"Apollo on Steroids"
The CEV will be shaped like the capsules used during NASA's Apollo program but will be three times as large.
"Think of it as Apollo on steroids," NASA administrator Michael Griffin said at a press briefing as he unveiled plans for the CEV, according to the Associated Press.
On its return trip, the CEV will be able to parachute to dry land or water, though land is preferable. With proper heat shield replacements, the craft will be able to be reused up to ten times.
The new lunar landing module will be delivered into Earth's orbit by a separate rocket (see photo). The CEV, after separating from its own rocket, will attach itself to the lunar lander before heading to the moon (see photo).
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