NASA has taken steps to return to the Moon by the end of the next decade by developing the largest and most powerful rocket since Project Apollo's Saturn V - towering over the Shuttle from which a number of its components are derived, it will be capable of placing over seventy tons in lunar orbit.
NASA's Plans for the Ares V
The Ares V launch vehicle currently in development by NASA cannot be directly compared to the Saturn V it resembles, since the former will launch only the Lunar Surface Access Module (LSAM), while the latter put both the Apollo CSM (command/service module) and LEM (Lunar Excursion Module) into space. However comparisons can definitely be made.
The Ares V emerged from NASA’s Exploration Systems Architecture Study as a means of returning to the Moon while simultaneously maintaining the technical infrastructure, knowledge base, and jobs developed in support of the Shuttle program. As a result, a glance at an artist’s conception of the vehicle reveals both solid rocket boosters (SRBs) and a modified external tank (ET), keystones of the Space Shuttle program. The first stage relies on six RS-68B variant rocket motors similar to those employed on the United States Air Force’s Delta launcher, while the Earth Departure Stage, or EDS, uses an engine based on the J-2 rocket of Apollo fame, referred to as the J-2X. According to NASA, the current version of the Ares V will be able to lift 207 tons to LEO or 78 to lunar orbit, a performance that would exceed its predecessor by a significant margin. This margin is intended not only to allow for a very robust Moon mission, especially given the fact that the Ares does not have to lift the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), but to allow for expansion of a lunar exploration effort or an eventual manned mission to Mars.
Building the Ares V Rocket
While the use of existing hardware, past or present, may sound like a good way to insure cost and development time controls, integration of the components of such a complicated vehicle is a non-trivial task, and components such as the J-2X need to be cleared for use in manned applications. (Such a move would not be necessary if the Ares V were simply to launch cargo, but the Ares I, a related but largely different rocket with its own technical difficulties, is to use the J-2X to place the Orion CEV into low-Earth orbit.) The lengthened version of the SRB is novel enough to present its own complications, one of which is the thrust oscillation problem that has been discussed both within NASA and in the news media since it first surfaced.
Funding may end up being Ares V’s biggest enemy, especially if the Ares I schedule and cost estimates prove optimistic, but it seems certain that, if built as advertised, Ares V will definitely stand alongside the Saturn V as one of NASA’s crowning achievements.
Saturn V- Shuttle- Ares V comparison courtesy of NASA