Son of Apollo
The next lunar lander will be a giant leap ahead of the first.
- By Tony Reichhardt
- Air & Space magazine, May 2006
Illustrations by Paul DiMare
(Page 2 of 8)
"I was absolutely a child of Apollo," Connolly says. "As a nine-year-old, I was the kid sitting in front of the TV with my nose 12 inches from the black-and-white screen watching Neil and Buzz walking on the moon. I had all the models of the Saturn V and the LM and everything else that day."
He turned that fascination into a NASA career, and counts himself lucky to be "working on things that very few people get the honor to work on." Yet much of his career has been spent in the bureaucratic backwaters. While NASA focused on the shuttle and the space station, Connolly and a small band of forward thinkers at Johnson conducted study after study of missions that could get the agency back to the moon if it ever got the call. There was the First Lunar Outpost concept of 1992, and the Human Lunar Return of 1996-a cut-rate, let's-just-do-it scheme that would have put two spacesuited astronauts into an open-cockpit moon lander that looked unnervingly like a rocket-powered jet ski.
None of these plans went anywhere, of course. "There were a number of years where 'exploration' was a dirty word at the agency," Connolly says.
Then came the 2003 Columbia accident, and a dramatic, White House-mandated change of course. No more circling Earth. Returning people to the moon, and using it as a training ground for Mars, would be the space agency's new plan. So for the past two years, Connolly and his colleagues at NASA headquarters have been developing the Architecture (a word NASA uses with the same reverence fundamentalists accord to "Scripture") for accomplishing their new mission.
The Architecture calls for sending four astronauts at a time to the lunar surface, compared with Apollo's two. Instead of spending three days on the moon, they'll stay a week. And rather than being confined to a narrow band of landing sites around the lunar equator, they'll be able to land anywhere, even the poles, where scientists believe ice in the soil could be converted to fuel and drinking water.
These improvements over Apollo result largely from an advantage in rocket power. Not only are modern propulsion systems more efficient than those of 40 years ago, but NASA is also taking a different approach this time, launching the moon vehicles on two separate rockets with a combined 150 metric tons of lift. In comparison, Saturn V had 130 tons.
LSAM's additional lift power will enable it to be bigger, better, and in every way more capable than its predecessor. In cargo-only mode, with no crew, its carrying capacity will be 21 tons, more than the weight of the entire LM.
But will it look very different? No matter how many years have passed or how many studies have been conducted, the physics and engineering practicalities of landing on the moon drive the design inexorably toward what the Grumman engineers came up with decades ago. "We might have wanted the LSAM to look like the Millennium Falcon," says Connolly, with a trace of wistfulness. "But it will probably look like the Apollo LM."