NASA manager pitches a cheaper return-to-moon plan

June 30, 2009 By SETH BORENSTEIN , AP Science Writer

(AP) -- Like a car salesman pushing a luxury vehicle that the customer no longer can afford, NASA has pulled out of its back pocket a deal for a cheaper ride to the moon.

It won't be as powerful, and its design is a little dated. Think of it as a base-model Ford station wagon instead of a tricked-out Cadillac Escalade.

Officially, the agency is still on track with a 4-year-old plan to spend $35 billion to build new rockets and return astronauts to the moon in several years. However, a top NASA manager is floating a cut-rate alternative that costs around $6.6 billion.

This cheaper option is not as powerful as NASA's current design with its fancy new rockets, the people-carrying Ares I and cargo-lifting Ares V. But the cut-rate plan would still get to the moon.

The new model calls for flying lunar vehicles on something very familiar-looking - the old system with its gigantic orange fuel tank and twin solid-rocket boosters, minus the shuttle itself. There are two new vehicles this rocket would carry - one generic cargo container, the other an Apollo-like capsule for astronaut travel. Those new vehicles could both go to the moon or the international space station.

What's most remarkable about this idea is who it came from: NASA's shuttle program manager John Shannon. He recently presented it to an independent panel charged with reviewing NASA's costly spaceflight plans. And he was urged to do so by a top .

It shows that top officials in NASA, an agency of engineers who regularly make contingency plans, worry that their preferred moon plan is running into trouble, space experts said.

Shannon says he likes the present return-to-the-moon design. But he said, "I think the cost numbers are going to give us problems." So for the past three years, Shannon and a handful of others have casually tinkered with the shuttleless shuttle, an idea that has kicked around NASA for decades. The Shannon team did so with the permission of NASA and is not connected with another group of space program workers who drew up a different alternative to Ares and did so anonymously for fear of retribution from NASA officials.

"What I was doing was not a break from NASA," Shannon said in a telephone interview. "I don't care what launcher we use, I just want to go to the moon."

This is all happening while NASA's new moon program, called Constellation - as well as the entire human spaceflight program - gets a hard look from an outside board as part of President Barack Obama's science policy.

And that panel's first reaction to Shannon's presentation was positive.

"Terrific, very well done," said panel chairman Norman Augustine, a longtime aerospace executive who noted he liked a similar proposal 20 some years ago.

Both the Augustine panel's reaction and the upper-level management fingerprints on the Shannon proposal suggest to space experts that NASA management may be shifting gears, or at least signaling its doubts about the costlier plan.

Howard McCurdy, an American University public policy professor who has written books about the space agency's decision-making, believes NASA management worries there won't be enough money for the Cadillac version.

"They are hedging their bets," agreed Keith Cowing, a former NASA engineer who runs the web site, which acts as a watchdog on the space agency. "It clearly reflects some doubts among senior agency folks in the overall veracity of their current approach."

NASA spokesman Michael Curie said Shannon was encouraged to make the presentation "in the spirit of sharing the options we've studied in the past."

But he added: "NASA believes the best plan is to fully fund the current architecture... This does not indicate a lack of confidence in or support for the current program."

Shannon said his numbers are rough and could change. The system would use hardware already built, like the engines, to save time and money. Eventually new engines would be built but from the old design.

Shannon's concept would use the same new Orion crew capsule being designed for Constellation. The only new vehicle would be the cargo container. Both would sit on the external fuel tank like the shuttle does now. When the crew capsule flies, it would be inside the cargo carrier at the top, with an emergency escape system.

And that "is the easiest part of the whole structure," Shannon said.

Another advantage of using the old shuttle system is that NASA wouldn't have to reconfigure its Kennedy Space Center launch site and use shuttle flight control systems, which would save billions of dollars, time and headaches, Shannon said. The new system could also launch a year earlier, and fewer space workers would have to be laid off because of that, he said.

The Shannon plan - called the Shuttle-Derived Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle - would only be able to carry two astronauts at a time instead of three or four. That might mean less of a moon base, Shannon said.

Whatever the final plan, Shannon said it all comes down to this: "I would like us to be in the lunar business."

©2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explore further: NASA names new space shuttle manager

Related Stories

Discovery Launch Date to be Finalized Today

May 19, 2008

Top NASA officials are gathered today at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida to assess preparations for space shuttle Discovery's STS-124 mission to the International Space Station. Known as the Flight Readiness Review, ...

NASA to replace shuttle

September 16, 2005

NASA's plan to replace the space shuttle with a spacecraft to take astronauts to the moon and Mars has been approved, U.S. officials said.

NASA may delay 2020 moon launch

April 22, 2009

NASA's plans to return astronauts to the moon are quietly being revised and are in danger of slipping past 2020.

NASA to redesign space vehicles

August 2, 2005

NASA engineers reportedly will abandon the basic space shuttle design in the next generation of U.S. spacecraft to make them safer and more powerful.

Recommended for you

How massive can neutron stars be?

January 16, 2018

Astrophysicists at Goethe University Frankfurt set a new limit for the maximum mass of neutron stars: They cannot exceed 2.16 solar masses.

Black hole spin cranks-up radio volume

January 12, 2018

Statistical analysis of supermassive black holes suggests that the spin of the black hole may play a role in the generation of powerful high-speed jets blasting radio waves and other radiation across the universe.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (2) Jun 30, 2009
"Cheap Nasa's plan" is an oxymoron. there is always cost over-run, Nasa's style, ALWAYS.
2 / 5 (4) Jun 30, 2009
What a joke - NASA still cannot achieve a capability it had 40 years ago.
2 / 5 (4) Jun 30, 2009
been there done that
2.3 / 5 (3) Jun 30, 2009

Are you sure?
2.1 / 5 (7) Jun 30, 2009
What a joke - NASA still cannot achieve a capability it had 40 years ago.

Yeah, I was just musing over that in the thread on Spirit and Opportunity.

It is shocking that we have supposedly made huge advances in EVERY relevant field of technology: Astronomy, materials, computers, chemistry, etc, and yet we cannot do what was done 40 years ago.

Much like my 1988 Mazda truck had verifiably better gas mileage, even though I literally sped by 10-20 miles per hour everywhere I went, ahem, it had as good or better mileage than any pure gasoline car or truck I'm aware of on the market today. I literally got about 30-33 MPG driving an average of 80-85mph on the interstate everwhere I went, and usually 60-70 on regular streets. This wasa not when it was brand new, but rather in 1998-2001, when it already had 10-13 years of use on it!!

Its failure by design people.
Certainly in America it is. Here, our economists define a "strong economy" as people buying lots of crap just for the sake of it, which is anything but economical.

Which is more "economy"? Designing a device that works like its supposed to, for many years? Or designing a device that needs to be replaced every few months or years?

Modern automobiles, appliances, light bulbs, parts, and many other things are intentionally designed to break down exactly one day after the warranty expires, so that the "consumer" must pay to get it fixed or replaced again.

PC video game development companies are literally more ethical than our engineers and technicians in mainstream industries and even medicine. At least the gaming company actually services, updates, repairs and debugs its products, often indefinitely and free of charge.

Anyway, we can't land on the moon again today because Americans are idiots, in spite of all the new inventions. As I said, the New inventions and their individual components are all designed to fail or be replaced one day after warrantee expires, and this is a major reason why our "on paper" economy is garbage. Even when it looked good on paper, the market was really a measure of waste and poor design. People were buying so much because the things they buy keep breaking after the magic 90 days.

Failure by design.
1 / 5 (4) Jul 01, 2009
Are you sure?

watch the video I linked
3 / 5 (3) Jul 01, 2009
I am glad that alternatives like this are being heard at least. The simpler design seems to take away at least some of the waste.

"Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." -- Antoine de Saint-Exuper
2.5 / 5 (4) Jul 01, 2009
Doesn't the Ares design reduce fuel costs and increase payload? The initial costs are higher but they make it back after 20 years compared to the current booster rockets.

Still it seems like a good compromise for enabling regular trips to the moon. I'm sure they will be able to squeeze a little more space for an extra passenger after the first few test runs. Either that or they will be able to keep up the existing launch schedule and further refine the Ares I plans or wait for newer and better ideas to be developed by the private sector...
4 / 5 (1) Jul 01, 2009
This is a horrible article. It makes no mention of the Direct v1.0 initiative which is a Shuttle-Derived Launch Vehicle (SDLV) system first proposed in 2006. This is nothing new and it certainly was not the brain child of John Shannon. Numerous engineers and former NASA workers have made contributions. Check these links out:


3.7 / 5 (3) Jul 01, 2009
This whole NASA bashing is really getting annoying. Of course technology has advanced in the 40 years since Apollo. But the problem of getting to the moon again, and staying, is not technical, it's logistical. The capacity to build a Saturn V rocket doesn't exist anymore. Sure, they could build it, if they wanted to...but why would they? If you're going to spend the time and money to rebuild your industrial capabilities to return to the moon, it makes more sense to incorporate the advances in technology of the last 40 years. That's where Constellation comes from, folks! The Ares V rocket will be significantly more powerful than Saturn V. Constellation is all about putting more people and equipment on the moon, and establishing a permanent base.

The different between Apollo and Constellation is like the difference between a Model T and a Lincoln Navigator. I mean, goodness, folks! Nasa and its contractors have the finest aerospace engineers in the world working for them. Give them a break...they know what they're doing!
4 / 5 (1) Jul 01, 2009
We need more research in the space elavator. 40 years ago, it was just a lunatic dream of SF writers (ie mr Clarke), but now we have strong carbon nanotubes and new thether technology. We need boldness to inovate and fund this. It has a great oportunity to function and once operational, it will open the doors of the stars to us.
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 01, 2009

I'm all for lunar missions and a real moon base, and hopefully a permanent human colony there, as well as on mars and also permanent mining operations in the asteroids, comets, and dwarf planets.

I could't care less about the Saturn V rocket. What I care about is seeing some real results and real progress beyond simple space satellites.

I WANT to see a real lunar colony and a real martian colony in my lifetime, hopefully with population in the thousands within my lifetime. I have concieved of at least basic plans for building planetary scale civilizations with almost absurd degree of foresight and efficiency in every detail. (i.e. building transport and energy infrastructure to support what the population "will be" right from the beginning, as they go along.)

"What's in it for earth?"

Well, in the case of both lunar and martian colonies, lots of things, chiefly astronomy, and in general, the survivability of the human race. It makes sense, there are more resources in space than those available on the earth alone, therefore it makes sense for humans to colonize space, and indeed, even move to other planets and space stations as the primary place(s) of abode.

Near Space 1: The start of space civilization.

The first space colony should not be on a planet or moon, but should be on a real "deep space nine" style space station, constructed by mining the asteroid fields, comets, and "asteroid size" moons in the solar system.

The reason for this is that gravity is the real problem with solar system colonization. Every time a ship must lift off from a planet or medium size moon, this is the greatest extent of the waste and usage or resources. To minimize this, we do as much of the "early" aspects of all colony construction in space itself. Once we have a relatively high manufacturing capability on a "Skycity" size space station, we can then construct the components and the fuel(from methane ice and water ice, etc in comets,) to supply the planetary and lunar colonies food, water, and energy, pre-fabricated buildings, tools, and vehicles for their start-up civilizations, with a miimum of "waste" for each future planetary or lunar colony.

Major components:

1) Nuclear power plants (primary power at first but becoming secondary later)

2) Solar panels and other energy traps to collect solar radiation energy. As we transition to a "dyson swarm" component, these become the primary power supply.

3) fully self sustained bio-sphere; obviously not perfect, but can be supplemented with "imports" from earth, particularly during the early stages of the operation.

4) Refinery for water, ores, and other compounds from comets and asteroids.

5) Manufacturing plant(s) for tools, prefabricated modules, etc.

6) living quarters, recreation, etc.

This is a monster project, but if done in a modular manner, this "space city" could simply be expanded almost indefinitely through "addons," or just be useful in constructing additional copies of itself at far lower cost than the first one (no need to lift off components from a planet, etc,) which also gives rize to the construction of a Dyson Swarm.

While the original investment on earth's part in constructing this city would be a very "long term" investment, the eventual return would be...astronomical, both to earth and to all of humanity.


Frankly, our space program is suffering from a lack of vision and ambition for both the future and the present.
3 / 5 (4) Jul 01, 2009
We need more research in the space elavator. 40 years ago, it was just a lunatic dream of SF writers (ie mr Clarke), but now we have strong carbon nanotubes and new thether technology. We need boldness to inovate and fund this. It has a great oportunity to function and once operational, it will open the doors of the stars to us.

Just make manufacturing in space, as I suggested.

It ends up being easier and cheaper than much of anything proposed regarding any space elevator concept. Besides, as I mentioned, a Dyson Swarm (or sphere) ends up being the ultimate goal of civilization on a "per star system" basis anyway, so it makes sense to go ahead and start with space stations and mining asteroids and comets first, rather than colonizing another planet first and then trying to mine the asteroids (gravity of the other planet/large moon wastes too much energy).

Planets become second generation colonies, not first generation colonies, because it is more efficient to mine out the asteroids and comets first, bringing any resources that will eventually be needed on the planet or moon to that location from other places in the solar system, therefore minimizing the number of lift-offs needed from planets and large moons.
1 / 5 (2) Jul 01, 2009
Also, as for money and resources in America.

Even in the midst of one of the worst recession(depression?) in recent memory, we can somehow afford to give billions of dollars per year to glorified circus clown, a.k.a. actors and athelets, but we cannot afford to build infrastructure or space programs? Get real.

Apparantly, we have little ambition as a civilization other than to entertain ourselves to death, as even the "high tech" industry is primarily driven by entertainment, rather than medicine, engineering, and the general advancement of civilization.
4 / 5 (1) Jul 01, 2009
What ever happened to Direct 2.0. Both the project mentioned here and Constellation are creating a sacrifice that is not necessary. First they say they will have to go down from a six seat capsule to four, then this will take it down to two. Direct 2.0 is a solution all the way and a win - win situation for the program and the taxpayers.
2 / 5 (2) Jul 04, 2009
"It won't be as powerful, and its design is a little dated"

Shuttle, 50000kg to leo

Ares 1, 32500kg to leo.


The bureaucracy at NASA should rebuild the Saturn V using lightweight composites. The vehicle is already man certified and nothing ever built comes close to its performance.
not rated yet Jul 04, 2009
The current Shuttle is 75% return weight (shootist, it's 50,000 lbs LEO), so the real LEO capability is over 101,000 kg. The Shuttle C would be a much simpler approach, that would mainly require building the main engines into a return module. This would probably reverse the ratio and allow a useful LEO of 75-80,000 kg.

Man-rating one of the Atlas rockets makes much more sense than building the Ares I. I really don't understand NASA's refusal to consider LEO assembly of exploration vehicles.
not rated yet Jul 05, 2009
DIRECT is up to v 3. Check out
and judge for yourself.

They're plan saves money, saves the shuttle work force, and gets us back into space,to the moon, and beyond with adequate payload sooner than any other proposal.

Hopefully the Augustine Commission recommends DIRECT because it really is the best option available to NASA.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.