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updated 6/7/2006 4:44:37 PM ET 2006-06-07T20:44:37

Alabama is officially back in the moon rocket business.

Engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center will oversee the development of NASA's next-generation lunar rocket, a companion cargo rocket and a new lunar lander, officials said Monday.

Work has been going on for six months, but the NASA announcement parceled out duties between Marshall, located at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, and nine other space agency centers scattered around the country.

The eventual goal is to land on Mars. But for the near term, the Tennessee Valley complex that developed the Saturn V rocket two generations ago is again shooting for the moon.

Marshall Director David King said getting back to the moon will be even tougher than reaching it the first time since plans now call for an extended stay rather than just a brief visit.

"We're going to have to plan this in a much more precise way," said King. "It is larger in scope than what we did the first time by a long shot."

The project is dubbed "Constellation."

Back in the Apollo days, engineers working in Huntsville under German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun developed the massive Saturn rocket that first took astronauts to the moon in 1969. More recently, the center's duties have included managing the shuttle's propulsion systems.

King said the Constellation vehicles would share some of the same features as the huge Saturn rockets.

"The physics haven't changed since we went there the first time," said King.

Preliminary designs of the crew rocket depict a system that looks like a cross between an Apollo rocket on the top and a space shuttle booster rocket on the bottom. Astronauts would ride in a gumdrop-shaped pod that resembles an Apollo capsule.

Artist renderings of the cargo vehicle show a large center rocket with two solid-rocket boosters strapped to the side — a design reminiscent of the space shuttle's appearance at launch, minus the orbiter.

The cargo rocket and crew carrier would rendezvous in low Earth orbit before heading to the moon, where the lander would take crew and cargo to the surface.

With the announcement, Marshall got a larger share of work than previously disclosed on the lunar lander. NASA Administrator Michael Griffin denied that shifting more responsibility for the project to Alabama from Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., had anything to do with the political pull of Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala.

"No political figures were involved in any of the decisions," said Griffin.

King said it was too early to tell how many jobs might come to Marshall because of the new space initiative.

Some people already have moved from shuttle-related work to projects connected with Constellation, he said, and more such changes will likely occur. Beside working on the lunar rockets, Marshall also is helping get the shuttle back in orbit and finishing work on the space station.

"We have a lot of work on our plate," said King. "We're looking forward to the huge challenge we have ahead. That's the way we like it."

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