By ANDY PASZTOR
Even before the Obama administration has laid out its priorities for the country's manned space program, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has asked U.S. industry to devise a plan for a lunar lander capable of carrying four astronauts to the moon.
The request for proposals on a concept for the vehicle was issued Wednesday. The process began to work its way through NASA's bureaucracy long before the November elections, and is based on the agency's current plans to develop a fleet of rockets and a new-generation spacecraft to transport astronauts to the moon after 2020. The lander, dubbed Altair, is intended to take astronauts from a capsule orbiting the moon to the moon surface, provide safe accommodations for an initial week-long stay and then return them to the capsule for the ride back home. The agency didn't immediately provide any cost estimate or timetable for finalizing lander concepts.
But even with appointment of a new NASA Administrator potentially weeks away and both the White House and Congress reviewing existing spending plans and priorities for space, NASA is apparently pressing ahead with its intention of awarding a number of contracts by the spring of 2009.
President Barack Obama and his advisers on space issues have expressed support for NASA's manned exploration efforts. In some instances, the President has advocated significant funding increases to accelerate manned programs.
NASA is proceeding despite the fact that it is not clear what rockets will eventually be used to enable astronauts to make a moon landing. Pentagon brass and Obama transition officials have been mulling the notion of rewriting the agency's strategic plans by possibly switching to use modified versions of current military rockets to reach the orbiting International Space Station, and perhaps further into space. Large contractors including Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. are waiting to see what direction the new administration intends to take NASA, while lawmakers are maneuvering to protect local jobs in case a major shift occurs.
The latest move comes less than two months after NASA asked industry for initial ideas about the proposed heavy-lift Ares V civilian rocket that would blast astronauts toward the moon. Those proposals are due the second week of February.