October 13, 2005

Northrop Grumman, Boeing reveal Apollo look-alike
Designers say the capsule, a proposed replacement for the shuttle, resembles the old craft because "the guys who did it the first time got it right."

By Otto Kreisher
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Northrop Grumman and Boeing unveiled a back-to-the-future concept for the next generation of space exploration vehicles Wednesday, displaying an Apollo-like capsule and support module as their offering in the competition for a system to take humans back to the moon and later to Mars.

The two aerospace giants are teamed in a bid for NASA's Crew Exploration Vehicle program, potentially a $100 billion project that is intended to replace the troubled Space Shuttle for servicing the International Space Station by 2012 and to carry astronauts to the moon by 2018.

The Northrop-Boeing team and Lockheed Martin each received $28 million contracts June 13 to refine their design proposals in a competition for the production contract, scheduled to be awarded next spring.

The Crew Exploration Vehicle, or CEV, is a key part of President Bush's ambitious long-term plan for manned exploration and possible colonization of the nearest planets.

The Northrop-Boeing proposal features a cone-shaped crew capsule that looks strikingly similar to the three-man Apollo spacecraft that last took Americans to the moon nearly three decades ago.

That design was determined to present the lowest technical risks and the best potential for meeting NASA's challenging timelines, said Douglas Young, vice president of Northrop's Integrated Systems in El Segundo and CEV program manager.

Larger capsule

The proposed capsule would be considerably larger than the Apollo vehicle, able to carry up to six astronauts with more room for them and for equipment and cargo, said Leonard Nicholson, deputy manager of the joint program and a 30-year veteran of NASA's space-flight efforts, including Apollo. By using modern lightweight structural material and electronic systems, the new capsule would be only about 10 percent heavier than the 1960s vintage Apollo, Nicholson said.

Although their proposal appears nearly identical to the artist's rendering of a possible CEV that NASA released earlier this year, Nicholson said they had settled on the Apollo-like design before NASA's release.

"When we went back and looked at all the alternatives, we came to the same conclusions as NASA," he said. "The guys who did it the first time got it right."

"Why carry wings to the moon?" Young added.

The capsule design also lends itself to solutions to two of the problems that have plagued the Space Shuttle throughout its history: how to save the crew if the launch rocket fails and how to survive the intense heat of the supersonic re-entry through the atmosphere.

On launch, the crew capsule would be enclosed in a cone-shaped shield topped by a relatively small rocket that could lift the crew away from the launch rocket if something went wrong. That is the same concept used in the original manned space programs, from Mercury through Apollo, but was not available to the airplane-like Shuttle.

The escape system would be jettisoned after a safe launch.

At launch, the bottom of the capsule would be inside a cylinder-shaped support module that would protect the heat-shielding tiles from the kind of damage that doomed the shuttle Columbia in 2003 and caused anxiety on this year's Endeavor mission.

Nicholson said that unlike the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo crew capsules, which splashed down in the Atlantic, the CEV would return on land, using parachutes to slow its fall, then cushioning the landing either with retrorockets, inflatable balloons or "crushable material" in its bottom.

Exploration missions

NASA has indicated the new space exploration missions would be launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and would land in the western United States, probably at Edwards Air Force Base.

The Northrop-Boeing CEV would be capable of unmanned missions to carry cargo to the Space Station, the program officials said.

For lunar missions, one rocket would carry the CEV and its support module into orbit, while another would carry a moon-landing module into orbit. Once in orbit, the crew capsule would dock with the lander and use its rockets to propel the combination away from Earth's orbit toward the moon.

Upon arrival, the CEV would remain in orbit around the moon unmanned while four astronauts rode the lander to the surface for missions that could last up to six months.

Company spokesmen said no decision had been made on where the work on the exploration vehicle and associated systems would be done, although the program office likely would be in Houston, close to NASA's program managers at the Johnson Space Center. Both firms have space and missile activities in Southern California, as well as in other states.

The California Space Authority has started an effort to persuade NASA and the two companies to do much of the work in the state. In support of that effort, 32 members of the California congressional delegation, including Rep. Jane Harman, D-El Segundo, sent a letter Oct. 7 to NASA administrator Michael Griffin, noting that the Shuttle fleet "was designed, developed and manufactured in California facilities by a California work force with unique training and experience."