NASA revisiting Apollo for ideas, parts in new moon rocket

Monday, August 14, 2006
NASA manager Jim Snoddy explained the technology behind a small-scale test rocket engine at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Snoddy is among the NASA engineers taking old rocket parts off museum pieces as the space agency designs the next U.S. moon rocket. (Associated Press)

While old parts will be used as lab examples and for testing, none of the antique hardware is likely to reach orbit.

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Jim Snoddy and other NASA engineers didn't just go to the drawing board or a warehouse when they needed ideas -- and parts -- for America's next lunar rocket. Instead, they went to space museums.

Facing tight deadlines and uncertain budgets as it works on President Bush's plan to send the United States back to the moon and on to Mars, NASA is both cannibalizing and analyzing pieces of its glory years: the Apollo program that first landed astronauts on the lunar surface in 1969.

Snoddy, a manager at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, has been removing valves and other parts from Apollo exhibits as he oversees construction of the upper-stage engine on the new moon rocket, dubbed Ares 1. Some of the pieces and documentation behind them aren't available anywhere but museums, he said.

The move makes sense. The new engine Snoddy is working on, a J-2X, is an updated version of the J-2 engine that powered the third stage of the 363-foot-tall Saturn V rocket during Apollo.

"It's eloquent," Snoddy said. "We've gone back to the days of simplicity. You can get more complicated, but why bother?"

Executives figuring out how to manage a lunar mission visited the state-owned U.S. Space and Rocket Center museum in Huntsville to borrow an Apollo operations manual from 1969, and an engineer working on a new lunar lander went to see an unused lunar descent stage on display at the museum.

The same thing is going on at the Smithsonian Institution and Space Center Houston, where exhibits manager Paul Spana said he's had about a dozen visits this year from young NASA engineers and contractors trying to figure out how their predecessors sent people to the moon.

They were particularly surprised to see the tight squeeze inside the lunar lander, he said.

"They say they have documents, but they feel more comfortable coming in and putting their hands on things," said Spana. "It's the first time it's happened here."

Don Krupp, chief of the vehicle analysis branch at Marshall, said that while old parts will be used as laboratory examples and testing, none of the antique hardware is likely to reach orbit on the new rocket.

Some old Apollo engineers are even being brought back in on a contract basis to work with the young folks, some of whom weren't even born when the Saturn V was flying lunar missions.

Everything seems fair game: It was NASA administrator Michael Griffin who described the new program as "Apollo on steroids."

NASA associate administrator Scott Horowitz said the new manned exploration project, called Constellation, is intentionally drawing upon lessons from its past as it works to meet a congressional deadline of flying the Ares rocket by 2014.

Aside from incorporating updated versions of Saturn technology, Ares will include an expanded solid-rocket booster similar to the ones that have been used to power the space shuttle into orbit since 1981.

Parts of Ares' exterior will be covered with the same foam used on shuttle fuel tanks as insulation for super-cold fuel, and the agency plans to launch the rockets from the same pads that were used for Apollo and now the shuttle at Cape Canaveral.

"We're not inventing rocket engines. This is an evolution," Horowitz said during a visit to Marshall, which is in charge of developing propulsion systems for the new spacecraft. "You get the benefits of the heritage, but you also get the benefits of new technology to help drive down costs."

NASA hasn't released an up-to-date cost on the program, but congressional budget office estimates put the price at more than $125 billion over 15 years.

Jeff Hanley, manager of the Constellation project for NASA, said most of the program's early effort has gone toward designing both a manned and unmanned version of the new Ares rocket, which will be bigger and more powerful than the Saturn V. Consequently, work on the new lunar lander isn't nearly as far along.

But chances are the new lander will bear a resemblance to the spider-legged lunar module that Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin first landed on the moon on July 20, 1969.

"The mechanics of landing on the moon and getting off the moon to a large extent have been solved. That is the legacy that Apollo gave us," said Hanley. Early designs of the Ares capsule, which will carry a maximum of six astronauts, closely resemble the old three-person Apollo gumdrop design.

Aside from using old ideas and equipment to help control costs, NASA engineers are drawing upon museum pieces because they worked so well. Apollo's only in-flight failure was the aborted Apollo 13 mission, and all three astronauts made it back to Earth safely.

Workers are also taking pages out of old NASA procedures, not just hardware. At Marshall, where Wernher von Braun and his team of German rocket scientists built the U.S. space program from the ground up at Redstone Arsenal, exploration launch projects manager Steve Cook said it's no accident that the entire Constellation development process is being videotaped.

"The Apollo fathers filmed everything, so we are, too," he said.

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