Plans for returning to the Moon have also been called Back to the Future. To reproduce the thrill for our generation, NASA is planning retro rockets similiar to those of the 1960's. Hey, if the retro Ford Mustang can be a hit....To answer Kea's question, an upcoming post will relate the Moon to corals and cosmology.
For one spacecraft to travel from Earth to the Moon and back would require a huge rocket with more stages than is practical. Von Braun and company had to choose between Earth Orbit Rendezvous (two rockets launched separately into Earth orbit so that one could refuel the other) or Lunar Orbit Rendezvous. Both plans were risky in the early 1960's when spacecraft had never mated in orbit, especially near the Moon. Thanks to some dedicated engineers, the latter plan was chosen and the US beat Russia to the Moon.
Because we wish to send even larger payloads, the new plan will use both EOR and LOR. A Lunar Module will be launched atop the Ares V heavy-lift rocket, which is based on Shuttle technology. The Orion Command Module and Service Module will launch separately using the smaller Ares I, which uses a single solid rocket booster. The two spacecraft will mate in Earth orbit, then use the Ares V upper stage to reach Earth escape velocity.
Like the Ford Mustang, the Orion looks like a 1960's vehicle but uses modern technology, like cupholders. The outside sports solar panels for green power, allowing Orion to remain in orbit for months. Today we have computers in a watch more powerful than those aboard Apollo. Thanks to automation, Michael Collins will not have to stay in the ship while Neil and Buzz see the Moon. Inside it will be much larger for a crew of 4-6. Use of modern composite materials will help the crew feel less like Spam in the can. Construction of Orion has just been awarded to Lockheed-Martin.
Returning to the Moon uses retro rockets because it should have been done yesterday. This program is vitally important to all kinds of science, especially astronomy and cosmology. The technology will someday allow us to put telescopes on the Moon. It will also ensure that the next crewed spacecraft to land on the Moon will have a flag on it and not MADE IN CHINA. A future post will show how cosmology benefits from the Moon and coral reefs too.
Below is a mockup of the original Lunar Module displayed at Worldcon. This week I'll be talking to engineers about design of the new LM.