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NASA announces requirements for craft replacing shuttles

WASHINGTON—Ending months of speculation, NASA has revealed its requirements for a new manned spaceship to succeed the aging, accident-prone shuttle fleet.

The craft, named the Crew Exploration Vehicle, is the centerpiece of President Bush's visionary plan to send humans back to the moon and on to Mars.

According to a list of objectives the space agency sent to major aerospace companies, the CEV will be designed to carry four to six astronauts into Earth orbit in 2014. It's supposed to land a crew on the moon in 2020, then establish a lunar base where humans can live for months at a stretch.

If it works, it'll be the first time humans will have set foot on the moon since the last Apollo astronauts, Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, departed on Dec. 15, 1972.

To carry out the president's proposal, NASA expects several teams of contractors—led by such titans as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman—to submit competing proposals for the Crew Exploration Vehicle this spring. Two finalists will be selected this summer, and a winner will be chosen in 2006.

The lengthy notice from the space agency, dated March 1, outlines a three-phase plan for returning to the moon:

_In the first phase, a powerful new launch rocket, not yet designed, is supposed to boost the CEV and a crew of four astronauts into orbit around the Earth and bring them back safely. An unmanned test flight is due by 2008.

The target date for the first crewed flight is 2014, four years after the last of the three remaining shuttles is retired. This kind of low-Earth orbit is nothing new; the shuttles have been doing substantially the same thing for 24 years.

_In the second phase, the spaceships will be fitted with a more powerful "Earth Departure Stage" that will allow them to escape Earth's gravity and soar across 238,000 miles of space to the moon.

Once there, a "Lunar Surface Access Module" will lower the astronauts gently to the surface.

Between 2015 and 2020, several of these manned landings, lasting as least four days each, are proposed. Again, this feat will retrace what six Apollo moon missions accomplished in the 1970s.

_The pioneering stuff won't come until the third "long duration" phase, starting after 2020. Astronauts will spend months on the moon, exploring, doing science and testing equipment and methods for the eventual goal, a manned landing on Mars.

No date has been set for the extraordinarily ambitious and risky Martian adventure.

The $15 billion CEV is only the first component of NASA's Constellation System. That's what NASA calls a "system of systems": an elaborate collection of projects including rocket launchers, unmanned cargo carriers and robots to help the astronauts as they travel. It includes ground workers, facilities and technologies to support humans in space and on the moon.

By 2020, NASA has told Congress, about $100 billion will have been spent to carry out the president's plan.

The CEV document says contractors should make astronauts' safety a top priority, but it acknowledges that risks are inevitable. The system "shall ensure crew safety through all mission phases within the limitations of meeting system performance and achieving mission objectives," the notice says.

The European Space Agency, China and India also are making plans to visit the moon and perhaps Mars. NASA is talking to the international agencies about the possibility of making this a joint venture.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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