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Before it embarks on a journey to Mars, NASA plans to test its technology with a return to the moon. The $100 billion trip, scheduled for 2018, will borrow from the Apollo program and develop new technology that could be used for a Mars landing. For instance, the reusable capsule, designed for a crew of four to six, will be three times larger than that used for Apollo. The capsule also will have solar panels and run on liquid methane which can be produced on Mars. This model of the new capsule is depicted in lunar orbit.
The journey begins with two launches–one for a rocket used to escape Earth’s orbit with the departure vehicle and lunar lander (far right), another with the astronauts and capsule (second from right). This diagram shows the relative size of the Saturn 5 rocket (left) used for the Apollo program and for space shuttle launches.
Once in orbit, the main rocket section is transformed into the departure vehicle that will take the astronauts from Earth orbit to the moon. The lunar lander is attached to the top.
The astronauts will dock their capsule to the departure stage, which will then head for the moon.
After a three-day journey to the moon, four astronaunts will separate the lunar lander from the capsule and land on the lunar surface. The capsule will remain in orbit.
The astronauts will spend seven days exploring the lunar surface and then blast off in a portion of the lunar lander to dock with the capsule and begin the return trip.
When approaching Earth, rockets will fire to slow the capsule’s re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere, and the service module will be jettisoned. After re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, parachutes will guide the capsule back to the ground.
While ocean splashdowns ended Apollo missions, the capsule on this mission will set down on dry land with the help of airbags.