NASA moon shot gets rocket blast, more money

By Michael Cooney, Network World |  Tech & society, NASA, Tech & society

NASA continued to develop its future moon landing program this week by getting a positive test on the rocket it might use to land humans on the moon and increasing the budget for the spacecraft it will use to get them there.

First off, Northrop Grumman said it successfully demonstrated the rocket engine known as the TR202 lunar descent engine that could be used on the spacecraft that lands on the moon. Northrop said it demonstrated stable combustion over a broad throttling range, utilizing what it calls high-performance pintle injector technology to control the spacecraft and allow a soft, precise lunar landing.

The TR202 program is funded by NASA's Propulsion and Cryogenic Advanced Development Project within the Exploration Technology Development Program.

Northrop pintle injector technology was used on the original Apollo Lunar Module Descent Engine and the company is working with NASA to develop the technology as a candidate propulsion option for the Altair lunar lander.

According to NASA Altair will be capable of landing four astronauts on the moon, providing life support and a base for weeklong initial surface exploration missions, and returning the crew to the Orion spacecraft that will bring them home to Earth. Altair will launch aboard an Ares V rocket into low Earth orbit, where it will rendezvous with the Orion crew vehicle.

Meanwhile, NASA bumped up the contract money it will spend to develop lunar spaceflight vehicles by $20 million to $58.75 million. The contract which is being split amongst Northrop, Boeing and others is intended to develop materials and aerodynamic, aerothermodynamic and acoustics technology for aerospace vehicles, NASA said.

Such budget increases and surely many more like it in the future will only generate more concern over future manned space ventures.

The White House recently set up a panel of experts to conduct a wide-ranging review the future of human space flight. The "Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans" is led by Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin and the panel is expected to look at ongoing and planned NASA development activities, as well as potential alternatives, and offer options for advancing a safe, innovative, affordable, and sustainable human space flight program in the years following Space Shuttle retirement. The panel should reach some conclusions by August 2009.

A Government Accountability Office report last year said there were considerable unknowns as to whether NASA's Constellation Program, which includes the Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, and the Ares V Cargo Launch Vehicle, can be designed and built within schedule goals and what these efforts will ultimately cost.

This is primarily because NASA is still in the process of defining many performance requirements. Such uncertainties could affect the mass, loads, and weight requirements for the vehicles.

Over $7 billion in contracts has already been awarded to the Constellation Program-and nearly $230 billion is estimated to be ultimately spent over the next two decades, the GAO said. Moreover, NASA is under pressure to develop the vehicles quickly, as the Space Shuttle's retirement in 2010 means that there could be at least a 5-year gap in our nation's ability to send humans to space.

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