From Space Daily :
Plans by the United States to return to manned space exploration, with the Moon as the first step in 2018, reflect a desire to maintain US leadership in the scientific world and, some day, to set foot on other planets in the solar system.The details sound somewhat like those in a hypothetical plan I mentioned back in February. Here it is :
The US space agency on Monday unveiled a 104 billion-dollar project to send astronauts to the moon by 2018 with a design inspired by the Apollo program of the 1960s, which put the first men on the lunar surface.
The recent launch of the Ariane-5 ECA from the European Space Agency caused me to have another look at its performance. It compares very favourably to a Saturn 1B, (though not to a Saturn V Apollo Moon Rocket). ESA thus has the lifting capability, using 3 Ariane-5 ECA's, to send up the components for a crewed lunar mission. One to carry the lander, one to carry a "kicker" booster to take the mission to the moon and back, and a command/re-entry module for the crew.Lest you think I've got some kind of "inside track" (apart from me being a sometime Rocket Scientist that is), well, there are only so many ways of doing things.
The NASA plan has several great merits: by using one or more (my bet is more) "Cargo Boosters" which don't have to be crew-rated, existing reliable hardware with known vibration proerties can be used. Maybe an Atlas V Heavy. Add a crew-rated booster with a relatively low capacity, maybe even a modified Soyuz booster, and you have minimum-cost and minimum-risk. Put the uncrewed vehicles in a proper parking orbit, and should one of the launches fail, you have quite a few months to send up a replacement.
Lest you think the idea of the US using a Russian-sourced booster is too outrageous, well, the common core of the later Atlas series already uses the Glushko RD-180 engine.
Such a plan could easily be upscaled to have multiple or larger "kickers" and more complex landers. Mars, anyone?