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Launching the New Era
Take the space shuttle solid rocket boosters and super-size them, then add modified shuttle main engines and an upper-stage engine used in the Apollo program. New heavy lift and crew launch vehicles You now have the heavy-lift propulsion components capable of powering a new cargo vehicle to the moon. By also using these safe and reliable elements on the crew launch vehicle, NASA's launch technology is well on its way to beginning the next phase of space exploration.

Image at Right: This engineering concept shows NASA's new heavy-lift launch vehicle (left) and crew launch vehicle (right). Image credit: NASA

While the space shuttle will be retired in the not-too-distant future, the propulsion components that carried it aloft will live on in upcoming missions to explore our solar system. First up will be the new crew launch vehicle that will ride a first stage made of a five-segment solid rocket booster similar to the twin boosters that now lift the shuttle from the pad. Sitting atop the booster will be a new liquid propellant second stage that sports a J-2X upper stage, like the ones used in the Saturn V Apollo program.

So why not build a new propulsion system from scratch? After extensive study, NASA found the shuttle system to be the best match. The solid rocket boosters and main engines are safe and reliable, and fit into the plans well. The industrial base is already in place, which will lower development costs and support the workforce that will need to transition when the shuttle is retired in 2010.

Existing shuttle facilities at NASA's Kennedy Space Center will be transformed as the new vehicles are processed, transported and launched. An artist's concept drawing of the new crew launch vehicle launching from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The massive Vehicle Assembly Building, crawler transporter and Launch Complex 39 launch pads that accommodated the shuttles and the vehicles that launched our first drive to the moon will be called upon to service yet another era of space exploration.

Image at Left: This illustration shows the crew launch vehicle. Astronauts will launch on this rocket made up of a single space shuttle solid rocket booster, with a second stage powered by a space shuttle main engine on top. Image credit: NASA

Kennedy "needs to be transformed and ready for the next steps in the Vision for Space Exploration to be successful," Kennedy Space Center Director Jim Kennedy told the center's work force in February.

Shuttle Program Manager Wayne Hale told workers he's already dealing with issues like when the shuttle program will give up launch pads and other facilities for the needs of the new vehicles. "I have no doubt that all of that is going to come together just fine," he said.

An artist's concept drawing of the new cargo launch vehicle after launching from NASA's Kennedy Space Center. Image at Right: This artist's concept shows the new heavy-lift launch vehicle that uses a pair of longer solid rocket boosters and five space shuttle main engines to put up to 125 metric tons in orbit. This versatile system will be used to carry cargo or put the components needed to go to the moon and Mars into orbit. Eventually, the heavy-lift rocket could be modified to carry crew as well. Image credit: NASA

Hale also has employees in mind, and says his goal is making sure than when the new program gets going, "we have the capability to retain the people that we need to make ourselves successful."

It's been more than 25 years since the transition from the Apollo program to the era of the space shuttle, culminating in the successful launch of STS-1 in April 1981. Now, we're taking the next steps, readying the rockets that will carry explorers back to the moon, paving the way for journeys to Mars and beyond.

Cheryl L. Mansfield
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center