As work continues on the International Space Station and the space shuttle nears retirement, NASA is planning return trips to the moon. But it has its sights set on Mars. Former shuttle astronaut Michael Coats is director of the Johnson Space Center.
"While we certainly have a lot of exploring to do on the moon — we've only landed there six times — the real value is that's a test bed. If we're going to go to Mars, we need to practice on the moon."
Coats traveled on the shuttle three times.
"When you get up into space and you look back at the earth, you fall in love. You never have enough time to look out the window at the earth. It's just, it's a beautiful living planet, and it's going through the blackest void that you've ever seen, and you want to put your arms around it and protect it."
NASA's Constellation program will culminate in a long-term lunar outpost.
"Follow me through the air lock into the ascent module."
In a hanger at the Johnson Space Center, work is underway on designing living quarters for the moon's surface.
"There are lunar rock storage, food storage..."
Robert Howard is working with a mock-up of the ascent module.
"Sleeping hammocks behind you — we won't get a chance to use those this go-round — and the toilet is behind this wall."
Astronaut Mike Gernhardt is with a team developing a pressurized rover for use on the lunar surface.
"We made this out of carbon fiber. The real version will be made out of aerospace aluminum. It'll be a pressure vessel — this is not a pressure vessel. Okay? So this is not — like, we wouldn't go take this to the moon."
Gernhardt has orbited in the shuttle four times and performed four spacewalks, and he's anxious to see our return to the moon.
"Man, as soon as we can get there. You know, I guess the official word is 2019. I'm hoping it's sooner than that, cause I'd like to go. I'm just raising my hand!"
The Orion spacecraft will replace the aging shuttle, with its first manned launch in earth orbit set for 2015. Cleon Lacefield is Lockheed Martin's project manager for Orion. He was a mission controller and flight director for NASA in the Apollo days.
"This vehicle — whether it's the space station or the lunar missions — it's designed to be in space for 210 days. Orion will fit in the payload bay of the shuttle. It's very weight-efficient, because for every pound you want to take to the moon and back, it takes you ten pounds to get it there."
JSC Director Michael Coats says Orion will recapture the public's imagination.
"You know, in the next 50 years, I really believe we're going to see some profound discoveries. I would bet we'll find life of some type some place else in the solar system."
Ed: "At some level."
"Even if it's just single cells out there. If there's life two different places in one solar system, statistically it's gotta be all over the universe."
Coats has a vision for NASA's future, and it relates to Houston.
"The first word heard from the surface of the moon was 'Houston'. I want the first word heard from the surface of Mars to be 'Houston'."
Ed Mayberry, KUHF Houston Public Radio News.
Above image of lunar rover vessel.
Below image of lunar rover wheel assembly.
Orion image courtesy of Lockheed Martin.