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The panel convened by order of the White House to assess NASA's plans for the future of human space flight - including the project to send people back to the moon by 2020 - is pondering a radical idea to set up orbiting depots at which relatively small, inexpensive rockets could stop off to pick up fuel. The potential benefits of such a scheme are detailed in a white paper submitted last week by Jonathan Goff, an engineer with Masten Space Systems in Santa Clara, California.
This would allow NASA to mount moon missions without spending billions of dollars developing the gigantic Ares V rocket. Existing, less powerful rockets such as Boeing's Delta IV or Lockheed Martin's Atlas V would suffice, he says.
Within NASA, some engineers have argued for investing in space-based demonstrations of technologies needed for fuel depots. These include sunshades that would keep stores of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen rocket fuel cool enough not to boil away.
Others point to downsides of the plan. Rocket malfunctions are not uncommon, and the more launches are needed for each moon mission, the more likely it is that something will go wrong, a former senior NASA official told New Scientist.