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Living and working in the most remote office in the solar system, the next moon-bound astronauts will rely on a 21st century lunar lander with conveniences only dreamt of by veterans of Apollo. (Illustrations by Paul DiMare)

Son of Apollo

The next lunar lander will be a giant leap ahead of the first.

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Dave Scott, who visited the moon in 1971, thinks the next generation of lunar pilots will have it much easier than he did. He likens his Apollo 15 landing to "the old barnstorming days, when guys used to take these old World War I airplanes and land in a farm field, in the grass, with no lights, and trees all around."

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The next lunar landing, he expects, won't be nearly as seat-of-the-pants. "Everything will be wired. When they come down the line the guidance is going to be better, the knowledge of the surface will be better." And, it goes without saying, the new vehicle is expected to be a great improvement over its predecessors.

There are great reservoirs of wisdom among the veterans of the Apollo program. At 73, Scott still keeps his hand in the game as an aerospace consultant. So do some of the engineers who built his lunar lander at Grumman Aerospace back in the 1960s.

John Connolly made pilgrimages to Bethpage, New York, where Grumman is based, to seek the counsel of these veteran engineers before he moved from NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., to the Johnson Space Center in Houston. There he will coordinate the team creating conceptual studies of the new Lunar Surface Access Module.

"Some people, their heroes are astronauts," says Connolly, as we're standing in the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, next to a squat, four-legged contraption that ranks among the great engineering triumphs of the 20th century: The Apollo Lunar Module, or LM. "The guys who dreamed up this ugly flying vehicle are my heroes."

Six Apollo landers, including Dave Scott's Falcon, are now on the moon, having transported astronauts there between July 1969 and December 1972. A handful of others are in museums around the United States. This particular vehicle, LM-2, never traveled in space. It didn't need to, because the first LM checked out so perfectly during an orbital test in January 1968 that a second test was deemed unnecessary.

"These guys [the Grumman engineers] in many ways pulled off the impossible," Connolly says. "They built a machine that had never been imagined before. Not only did they build it, but it worked perfectly every time."

That's a big achievement to follow. The new LSAM, if the schedule holds, will carry astronauts back to the moon in 2018, half a century after the first lunar voyages.

"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.

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