WASHINGTON — NASA’s 10 regional field centers learned Oct. 30 the roles they will play in developing the Ares 5 heavy-lift rocket, lunar lander and other hardware the United States needs to send humans to the Moon toward the end of the next decade.

The biggest roles were assigned to NASA’s larger field centers, with lead responsibility for designing the lunar lander and other lunar surface systems, including rovers and astronaut habitats, going to Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Development of the Ares 5 rocket and its Earth-departure stage will be led by Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Marshall also will lead development of the lunar descent stage for the lunar lander.

Marshall is already in charge of developing and testing the smaller Ares 1 rocket, which will be used starting around 2015 to launch the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle to the international space station. When lunar missions commence around 2019, NASA intends to use the Ares 1 to launch Orion into low

Earth orbit, where it will rendezvous with the separately launched lunar lander for a multiple-day journey to the Moon powered by the Earth departure stage, which is a giant fuel tank with a rocket engine attached.

NASA will not begin development of the Ares 5 or the lunar lander truly until after the space shuttle is retired in 2010, freeing up some $4 billion a year the agency currently spends to operate the 26-year-old spaceship.

Richard Gilbrech, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems, told reporters Oct. 30 that although the work would not begin in earnest on Ares 5 or the lunar lander until after the shuttle retires, telling the field centers now what their roles will be will help them prepare for the future and, more immediately, allow them to get involved in generating the technical requirements for the needed hardware.

“This is an early step to let the field centers know what areas of responsibility they can look forward to in the exploration program,” Gilbrech said.

The announcement of the field center work assignments comes as the House and Senate prepare to meet in legislative conference to draft a final Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill for 2008. Among the issues to be worked out in conference is how much money to give NASA. The House has approved $17.6 billion for NASA for next year, while the Senate approved $18.5 billion, a sum that includes a $1 billion cash infusion to help the agency financially recover from the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident.

Gilbrech said the timing of NASA’s announcement was unrelated to the pending congressional action the space agency’s budget. “We are here to do a technical mission and trying to go where we have the best technical expertise to accomplish that,” Gilbrech said.

NASA Ames Research Center, Moffet Field, Calif., was assigned lead responsibility for Ares 5’s integrated health management system and a supporting role developing its payload shroud. Ames also will lead development of integrated health management systems for the lunar lander and other lunar surface systems, and work with other field centers to build mission operations simulations capabilities, NASA officials said.

Dryden Flight Research Center outside Los Angeles currently is leading the testing of the Ares 1 rocket’s launch abort system, and will help Ames develop mission operations simulation capabilities and support ground and flight test operations for other lunar projects.

Glenn Research Center near Cleveland was given the lead for developing the lunar lander’s ascent stage – the rocket engine it will use to get off the Moon’s surface – as well as Ares 5’s power system, thrust vector control system and payload shroud. Glenn engineers also will subject the Earth-departure stage to the rigors of the space environment at nearby Plum Brook Station, which hosts the world’s largest thermal vacuum chamber.

Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., was assigned the lead for developing an unpressurized cargo carrier for Orion and avionics for the lunar landers. Goddard also is being asked to draw upon its experience designing the tools astronauts use to service the Hubble Space Telescope to develop tools and equipment NASA’s Moon-bound astronauts will need when they do spacewalks. Goddard also was given supporting roles on the development of avionics and communications systems for still-to-be-defined lunar surface systems.

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., was given a variety of supporting roles on the lunar lander and the lead on a particular robotic lunar surface mobility system – a six-legged robot known as All-Terrain Hex-Legged Extra-Terrestrial Explorer, or ATHLETE for short.

Florida’s Kennedy Space Center was assigned responsibility for doing final assembly of the human lunar lander, will help integrate lunar habitat modules and, of course, will get Ares 1, Ares 5 and Orion ready for launch from its ocean-side launch pads.

Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., was assigned a variety of supporting roles on the lunar lander as well as lead roles on the Ares 5’s aerodynamics and developing structures and mechanisms for such lunar surface systems as the rovers and habitation modules.

Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss., NASA’s primary rocket engine testing facility, will perform that role for Ares 5 as well as Ares 1. It also will support testing of the lunar lander descent engine.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...