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NASA Moves Forward With Plans For Multi-Billion-Dollar Moon Rocket

Jul 12, 2019
Originally published on July 18, 2019 3:03 pm
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When the Apollo 11 astronauts blasted off towards the moon 50 years ago this month, they rode on the Saturn V rocket. The Saturn V is still the most powerful rocket ever flown. NASA, now, is working on a new moon rocket, though, a massive one that should out-power the Saturn V. And as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, it is a big rocket with a very big price tag.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The new moon rocket is being built in the same place as the old Saturn V, NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. This is one of the biggest manufacturing facilities in the world. The factory covers 43 acres - more than 31 football fields. Walk in, and you'll see about a dozen bikes lined up, waiting for workers.

So are all these bikes 'cause this place is just so big?

CHAD BRYANT: Yes, it is (laughter). It's the best way to get around in here and get a little exercise at the same time.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Chad Bryant is NASA's manager for this rocket. He says the interior of this factory has changed a lot since the days of Apollo, but the walls and the roof haven't.

BRYANT: So the roof is a nightmare to maintain here. We'll get really hard rain here in Louisiana. The roof will leak every now and then.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bryant's connection with the space program started when he did.

BRYANT: I was born the day that the Apollo 13 astronauts came back.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: His dad worked for the Apollo program and took him to Florida to watch the launch of the final moon mission.

BRYANT: At that time, I didn't really understand the magnitude of what I was witnessing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: His dad worked on the space shuttle, too, and Bryant followed him to NASA. He remembers the shuttle's big orange fuel tanks being built here, until the shuttles stopped flying eight years ago. Tarps were put over equipment; the lights got turned off.

BRYANT: Then that was probably one of the toughest moments of my career, seeing the people that I had worked with here for the shuttle program leave - you know? - and this place pretty much shut down.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: These days, this factory is humming because as the space shuttle program was ending, NASA was planning a new space vehicle, a giant rocket. We ride around on a small cart - no bicycles for us - looking at giant aluminum cylinders. We go up two flights of stairs to peer down into one.

BRYANT: This is our engine section right here. This is the most complicated part of the rocket.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Then he shows me the enormous fuel tank.

BRYANT: It's going to house 537,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The finished rocket will be more than 20 stories tall. Eighty percent of it is now complete and assembled.

BRYANT: And I think it makes everybody more focused, you know, and energized to see the hardware being put together and to know that we're getting closer every day now.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But this rocket was supposed to launch two years ago, and a lot of the space community thinks it's a huge waste of money. In the last five years alone, it's cost NASA more than $12 billion. Back in the Obama administration, officials tried to get NASA out of the rocket-building business and killed a different program. Congress basically insisted that NASA still build a big rocket.

LORI GARVER: The bottom line is these were contracts worth billions of dollars, and the companies wanted to keep them.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Lori Garver was deputy administrator of NASA back then. She opposed building this rocket even though others at NASA were for it.

GARVER: NASA wanted to build a big rocket because that's what we did 50 years ago, and people were drawn to NASA because of that. And we didn't have anywhere for it to go, and no one seemed to mind.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says, instead, NASA could rely on commercial rockets. Maybe they can't carry up quite as much cargo, but they're so much cheaper. The most powerful rocket currently flying is the Falcon Heavy built by SpaceX. It costs only around a hundred million dollars per flight. NASA's new rocket will cost more than a billion.

GARVER: Any architecture for going back to the moon and going to Mars using it will be strapped by the cost.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Back at the factory, Bryant says NASA's rocket will inspire a whole new generation of space enthusiasts who never got to see Apollo or the space shuttles. And when it comes to the money, here's what he tells people.

BRYANT: Think of it as a jobs program. So we're taking - all of the funding that is given us to build this rocket, we're creating jobs everywhere. And not only that, we're all coming together to build a product that is going to make us proud to be Americans.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The first launch, without people onboard, won't happen until next year at the earliest. And the Trump administration apparently isn't happy with how things have been going. Just this week, it abruptly replaced the two top officials heading this effort, saying the move was necessary to speed up NASA's return to the lunar surface.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.