Once in the moon's orbit, the lander would detach and deliver up to four astronauts to the lunar surface (see photo). While Apollo was limited to landings along the moon's equator, the new ship will be capable of landing anywhere on the moon's surface.
Once a lunar outpost is established, crews could remain on the moon for up to six months, according to NASA.
Crews and cargo will be carried into orbit by a space shuttle-derived launch system, consisting of a rocket booster and an upper section powered by a main engine. The main engine should be able to lift approximately 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons).
A larger version of the rocket will be constructed to ferry cargo loads of up to 275,000 pounds (125 metric tons).
NASA hopes the ship will be ready to ferry crews and supplies to the International Space Station by 2010, replacing the aging space shuttle fleet.
Unmanned missions to the moon are scheduled to begin between 2008 and 2011. Early missions will scout out landing sites and resources such as oxygen, hydrogen, and metals, which will be required for extended lunar stays.
If all goes according to plan, the first human mission to the moon will launch in 2018. NASA outlined its vision for the trip on its Web site.
The mission will begin by launching the lunar lander and cargo into Earth orbit, along with a propulsion system needed for the CEV and lander to escape Earth's gravitational pull.
Within 30 days of the cargo launch, the crew will arrive in the CEV. The craft will dock with the lander and propulsion system and head for the moon. After reaching lunar orbita three-day tripthe astronauts will board the lander and travel to the lunar surface.
After exploring the moon for up to a week, the crew will blast off in a portion of the lander (see photo), rejoin the CEV, and travel back to Earth.
Upon entering Earth's orbit, the service module will be jettisoned and the CEV's heat shield will be exposed. Once three parachutes deploy (see photo), the heat shield will be dropped and the capsule will set down on dry land, most likely at Edwards Air Force Base in California.
NASA added that the new vehicle will be far safer than the space shuttle. The added safety is largely because of an escape pod on the top of the capsule, which can quickly blast the crew away from the CEV should problems occur.
The shuttle program has had two fatal accidents, the most recent on February 1, 2003, when Columbia burned up on reentry to Earth's atmosphere. The same type of falling debris that doomed Columbia was seen falling from the shuttle Discovery during its July 2005 launch.
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