Image: Saturn rocket
Rob Carr  /  AP file
NASA engineers designing the new Ares moon rocket have taken parts off an old Saturn S4B rocket stage, right, shown on display at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.
updated 8/14/2006 4:15:49 PM ET 2006-08-14T20:15:49

Jim Snoddy and other NASA engineers didn’t just go to the drawing board or a warehouse when they needed ideas — and parts — for America’s next lunar rocket. They went to space museums.

Facing tight deadlines and uncertain budgets as it works on President Bush’s plan to send astronauts back to the moon and on to Mars, NASA is both cannibalizing and analyzing pieces of its glory years, namely the Apollo program that first put humans on the lunar surface in 1969.

Snoddy, a manager at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, has been removing valves and other parts from Apollo exhibits as he oversees construction of the upper-stage engine on the new moon rocket, dubbed Ares 1. Some of the pieces and accompanying documentation are not available anywhere but museums, he said.

The move makes sense: The new engine Snoddy is working on, a J-2X, is an updated version of the J-2 engine that powered the third stage of the 363-foot (110-meter) Saturn 5 rocket during Apollo.

“We’ve gone back to the days of simplicity. You can get more complicated, but why bother?” Snoddy said.

Don Krupp, chief of the vehicle analysis branch at Marshall, said it is unlikely any of the antique parts will actually fly in space; instead, they will be used for research and development.

Borrowing a 1969 manual
As part of the effort to draw on NASA’s past, space executives visited the state-owned U.S. Space and Rocket Center museum in Huntsville to borrow an Apollo operations manual from 1969, and an engineer working on a new lunar lander went to see an unused lunar descent stage on display at the museum.

The same thing is going on at the Smithsonian Institution and at Space Center Houston, where exhibits manager Paul Spana said he has had about a dozen visits this year from young NASA engineers and contractors trying to figure out how their predecessors sent people to the moon. They were particularly surprised to see the tight squeeze inside the lunar lander, he said.

“They say they have documents, but they feel more comfortable coming in and putting their hands on things,” Spana said.

Some old Apollo engineers are even being brought back on a contract basis to work with the young folks, some of whom were not even born when the Saturn 5 was flying lunar missions.

‘Apollo on steroids’
The new manned exploration project, called Constellation, is deliberately drawing upon lessons from the past as the space agency works to meet a congressional deadline of flying the Ares rocket by 2014. In fact, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has described the new program as “Apollo on steroids.”

Aside from incorporating updated versions of Saturn technology, Ares will include an expanded solid-rocket booster similar to the ones that have been used to propel the space shuttle into orbit since 1981.

Parts of Ares’ exterior will be covered with the same insulating foam used on shuttle fuel tanks, and the agency plans to launch the rockets from the same pads that were used for Apollo and the shuttle at Cape Canaveral, Fla.

“We’re not inventing rocket engines. This is an evolution,” NASA Associate Administrator Scott Horowitz said during a visit to Marshall, which is in charge of developing propulsion systems for the new spacecraft. “You get the benefits of the heritage, but you also get the benefits of new technology to help drive down costs.”

$125 billion project
NASA has not released an up-to-date cost on the program, but congressional budget office estimates put the price at more than $125 billion over 15 years.

The new Ares rocket will be bigger and more powerful than the Saturn 5. Early designs of the Ares capsule, which will carry a maximum of six astronauts, closely resemble the old three-person Apollo gumdrop design. And chances are the new lunar lander will bear a resemblance to the spider-legged lunar module that Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin landed on the moon on July 20, 1969.

“The mechanics of landing on the moon and getting off the moon to a large extent have been solved. That is the legacy that Apollo gave us,” said Jeff Hanley, manager of the Constellation project for NASA.

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