WASHINGTON — Like a car salesman pushing a luxury vehicle that the customer no longer can afford, NASA has pulled out of its back pocket a deal for a cheaper ride to the moon.
It won't be as powerful, and its design is a little dated. Think of it as a base-model Ford station wagon instead of a top-of-the-line Cadillac Escalade.
Officially, the space agency is still on track with a four-year-old plan to spend $35 billion to build new rockets and return astronauts to the moon in several years. However, a top NASA manager is floating a cut-rate alternative that costs around $6.6 billion.
This cheaper option is not as powerful as NASA's current design with its fancy new rockets, the people-carrying Ares I and cargo-lifting Ares V. But the cut-rate plan would still get to the moon.
The new model calls for flying lunar vehicles on something very familiar-looking -- the old space shuttle system with its gigantic orange fuel tank and twin solid-rocket boosters, minus the shuttle itself. There are two new vehicles this rocket would carry -- one generic cargo container, the other an Apollo-like capsule for astronaut travel. Both the new vehicles could go to the moon or the International Space Station.
What's most remarkable about this idea is who it came from: NASA's shuttle program manager John Shannon. He recently presented it to an independent panel charged with reviewing NASA's costly spaceflight plans. And he was urged to do so by a top NASA administrator.
It shows that top officials in NASA, an agency of engineers who regularly make contingency plans, worry that their preferred moon plan is running into trouble, space experts said.
Shannon says he likes the present return-to-the-moon design. But he said, "I think the cost numbers are going to give us problems." So for the past three years, Shannon and a handful of others have casually tinkered with the shuttleless shuttle, an idea that has kicked around NASA for decades. The Shannon team did so with the permission of NASA and is not connected with another group of space program workers who drew up a different alternative to Ares anonymously for fear of retribution from NASA officials.
"What I was doing was not a break from NASA," Shannon said in a telephone interview. "I don't care what launcher we use. I just want to go to the moon."
This is all happening while NASA's new moon program, called Constellation -- as well as the entire human spaceflight program -- gets a hard look from an outside board as part of President Barack Obama's science policy.
And that panel's first reaction to Shannon's presentation was positive.
"Terrific, very well done," said panel chairman Norman Augustine, a longtime aerospace executive who noted he liked a similar proposal 20 some years ago.
Both the Augustine panel's reaction and the upper-level management fingerprints on the Shannon proposal suggest to space experts that NASA management may be shifting gears, or at least signaling its doubts about the costlier plan.
Howard McCurdy, an American University public policy professor who has written books about the space agency's decision-making, believes NASA management worries there won't be enough money for the Cadillac version.