NASA spells out CEV and Moon landing plans

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NASA could land astronauts on the Moon in the first days of April 2018, according to the just-released Phase 2 solicitation for its Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). Launch of the first Moon landing mission has been set for 31 March 2018, while lunar outpost construction is to begin in 2019.

Astronauts could be on board the CEV for two earlier lunar risk-reduction flights, the first of which is scheduled no later than 31 March 2017 and could go round the Moon and back. The Phase 2 schedule also gives 28 September 2012 as the latest preferred date for the first CEV crew transport mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

“The schedule is a draft schedule. We’re using it to estimate life-cycle costs and address reusability issues. But we have said we want to return to the Moon in 2018,” says NASA.

The Phase 2 solicition specifies three CEV variants. Block 1A is a crewed, pressurised vehicle for low-Earth orbit missions; Block 1B is an uninhabited, pressurised vehicle for ISS resupply; and Block 2 is a crewed, pressurised vehicle for lunar missions. NASA expects minimal subsystem changes between Block 1A and 1B, while Block 2 should only see software changes.

Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman/Boeing are competing for the CEV development contract, to be awarded by 7 August. The winner will provide a Block 1A and 1B CEV, an iron-bird test rig, and two “production CEVs” for risk-reduction flights (RRF).

CEV flights will begin in 2008 with tests of the launch abort system (LAS). Three risk-reduction flights will follow. RRF-1 will test the CEV launch vehicle first stage, with a dummy mass representing the second stage, CEV and LAS; RRF-2 will involve orbital insertion of the CEV followed by an emergency re-entry and landing. Although not confirmed by NASA, the third RRF, due no later than 1 May 2012, could be manned as it involves an ISS rendezvous and landing in the USA. RRF-3 will be followed by the first ISS crew flight that year.

ROB COPPINGER/LONDON