NASA picks rocket for return to Moon

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Agency opts for 100t launcher using Shuttle technology.

NASA has decided to develop a 100t to low-Earth orbit (LEO) in-line heavylift booster using a highly modified external tank and new five segment solid-rocket boosters (SRB), Christopher Shank, special assistant to NASA administrator Michael Griffin, has revealed to Flight International.

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Shank says the agency will also develop a crew exploration vehicle (CEV) launcher that will be an in-line SRB with a cryogenic second stage.

These will become the launch vehicles to take the USA back to the Moon from 2015 and beyond. Previously NASA administrator Michael Griffin had only expressed his personal preference for Shuttle derived launch vehicles. The 100t launcher will place lunar mission boosters and other heavy hardware into LEO.

“A lot of this [decision] has to do with launch loads and safety aspects. It is better to do it with in-line,” says Shank.

He adds that NASA’s leadership is aware that an in-line booster requires major launch complex and vehicle assembly building changes, but future budget estimates take this into account. Planners are working on the 2007 budget. Shank expects US congressional representatives will want to discuss the decision when they reconvene on 9 September.

The alternative to the in-line version was an expendable 70t-to-LEO side mounted Shuttle-like cargo pod. However, the 5 August selection of the in-line solution was based on work carried out by the 60-day Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS), created on 29 April by Griffin, and earlier studies that fed into ESAS.

ESAS concluded that the CEV launcher should have a 35t-to-LEO capability because two CEV versions are needed: a 25t International Space Station crew transfer variant and a 35t lunar mission CEV.