NASA engineers are studying new flight technologies, test-firing engines and evolving the most successful hardware from past missions to develop America’s Crew Launch Vehicle – the cutting-edge spacecraft that will carry a new generation of explorers to orbit and beyond.

Though it may resemble its forebears – the powerful boosters of the space shuttle system, for example, and the towering “vertical-stack” configuration of the Apollo-era Saturn rockets – this isn’t your parents’ spaceship.

And this month Alabamians are among the first to experience next-generation spaceflight the way future Crew Launch Vehicle astronauts will do so – as NASA’s traveling exhibit, the “Vision for Space Exploration Experience,” rolls across the state.

“The right solution for the next generation of launch vehicles combines today’s unparalleled NASA innovation with a half-century of proven power and efficiency from our most successful legacy launch systems,” said Steve Cook, director of the Constellation Systems Launch Vehicles Project Office at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The office manages the Crew Launch Vehicle development effort for NASA.

“This approach will help us meet our timetable to put humans on the moon by 2020, will keep future operational costs manageable, and will enable us to achieve unprecedented long-term mission goals – including permanent lunar stations and human expeditions to Mars and beyond,” Cook said. “We truly are ushering in a new era in human spaceflight.”

The Exploration Experience, which uses holographic and 3D imagery to enable visitors to explore the moon, Mars and destinations beyond, has toured Alabama since April 6. The exhibit today concludes its visit to the W.A. Gayle Planetarium in Montgomery, Ala. It will appear April 20-23 at the McWane Science Center in Birmingham, Ala.

Exhibit visitors will learn how advanced space vehicles such as the Crew Launch Vehicle will help improve the lives of future generations, providing advances in power, computer technologies, communications, networking and robotics.

The Crew Launch Vehicle is an in-line, two-stage rocket configuration built primarily to carry to space the Crew Exploration Vehicle – the capsule that includes the crew compartment and integrated launch abort system. The total payload capacity of the Crew Launch Vehicle is 25 metric tons. It will weigh some 907 tons on the launch pad and stand 309 feet tall.

NASA estimates the vehicle will be 10 times safer than the space shuttle, chiefly because it places human passengers atop the rocket instead of alongside it. The protective foam layer which covers the tanks of sub-freezing cold fuel and propellant to prevent icing, also is situated below the crew module. With this redesign, the chance of damage from falling ice or foam to the crew compartment, reentry systems or other mission hardware is eliminated.

The recoverable first stage is a single, five-segment solid rocket booster powered by a reusable solid rocket motor – both derived from the current booster and motor elements that help power the space shuttle to orbit. The stage will incorporate numerous enhancements, including advanced recovery and roll control systems, designed for greater vehicle steering and maneuverability during flight. And while the first stage engines will burn the same polybutadiene acrylonitride propellant used by the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, NASA is pursuing alternative chemical propellants to increase booster efficiency and reusability.

A new “interstage” adapter will mate the vehicle’s first stage to the second, and will be equipped with state-of-the-art booster separation motors to disconnect the stages during ascent. The second or upper stage – a wholly new element being developed at Marshall – will be propelled by a J-2X main engine fueled with liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. The J-2X represents an evolution of two historic predecessors: the powerful J-2 upper-stage engine that propelled the Apollo-era Saturn 1B and Saturn V rockets to the moon, and the J-2S, a simplified version of the J-2 developed and flight-tested in the early 1970s.

The primary mission of the Crew Launch Vehicle is carrying crews of four to six astronauts to Earth orbit. It also may be used for delivering uncrewed cargo payloads to space, bringing resources and supplies to the International Space Station or dropping them off in orbit for retrieval and transport to exploration teams on the moon.

Flight testing of the Crew Launch Vehicle is expected to begin in 2012. The first lunar excursion is scheduled for 2020.

Development of NASA’s Crew Launch Vehicle is a partnership between the Marshall Center, Johnson Space Center in Houston; Kennedy Space Center, Fla.; and Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss. Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans will manufacture and assemble vehicle hardware. Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne in Canoga Park, Calif., is the prime contractor for the Crew Launch Vehicle upper stage element.

For more information about the “Vision for Space Exploration Experience” exhibit, visit:

For more about the Crew Launch Vehicle and NASA’s exploration initiatives, visit: