Son of Apollo

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

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)
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If the system is designed right, says Cummings, "anybody, anywhere, anytime should be able to control the lunar lander." The operator wouldn't even have to be on board. "You do not need 1,000 carrier landings or the Right Stuff to be a good lunar lander pilot," she maintains.

Lest anyone think this opinion comes from some pale computer geek who's never been closer to pilots than Row 12 of the red-eye to Boston, a brief word on Professor Cummings' background: Before she got her Ph.D., she was one of the first female naval aviators to fly the F/A-18 Hornet. Today she spends much of her time on the problem of controlling networked unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Because NASA also wants the LSAM to be able to land with no crew on board, delivering supplies in "cargo mode," Cummings says the agency's experience with remote-controlled landings on Mars is as relevant as the exploits of the Apollo astronauts. Her fear is that astronauts won't stand for some ground controller "piloting" the LSAM from afar. The same tension exists between Air Force pilots and UAVs, she says. "I was a fighter pilot. I was the most elite of the elite. And we're the ones who are most resistant to this change."

On this issue, Dave Scott, the Apollo 15 commander, comes down somewhere in the middle. "Airliners have had auto-land capability for a long time, but they still have the pilot up in front," he says. "So I would say if you get a lunar lander with an auto-land capability, you're still going to have the pilot looking out the window."

The question of who will pilot the LSAM doesn't need to be settled today, though. Right now Connolly has his hands full with big-picture design questions, particularly those that affect near-term development of the CEV and launch vehicles.

So Connolly consults with those who have been in his shoes-his predecessors, now retired from Grumman. "They are thrilled that NASA is coming back and talking to them," he says. "They are probably as excited today about going back to the moon as they were when they built this machine."

After posing with them for group pictures and hearing their war stories, Connolly would come back to asking them the same question. "How did you pull this off? How did you make this vehicle as reliable as it was?"

One way the LM engineers ensured quality was by "extensive, extensive testing," and Connolly wants to know how much he should budget for his test program.

That's another crucial difference between the 1960s and today: money. Once the Apollo engineers got deep into their work, the money just kept flowing, and there was little doubt NASA would follow through on its plan to reach for the moon. Could anyone make the same claim in 2006?

Having worked on more aborted return-to-the-moon plans than he can easily count, Connolly can only hope-or maybe it's better to say have faith-that this lunar lander will actually come to pass, just as the Architecture says it will.

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