Nasa counts down for return to manned moon landings by 2018

NASA plans to return astronauts to the moon by 2018, nearly half a century after men last walked the lunar surface.

The US space agency proposes to use a combination of space shuttle and Apollo rocket parts to get its astronauts there.

The space agency presented its lunar exploration plan to the White House on Wednesday and on Capitol Hill yesterday. An announcement is set for Monday at Nasa HQ in Washington.

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John Logsdon, director of George Washington University's space policy institute said: "The emphasis is on achieving goals rather than elegance," referring to the use of old equipment for the flight.

The crew exploration vehicle's first manned trip will be to low-Earth orbit, probably no earlier than 2012, leaving up to a two-year gap between the last shuttle flight and the debut of its successor.

In January 2004, just five months after the Columbia accident board's report, US President George Bush called for the retirement of the space shuttles by 2010 and the creation of the crew exploration vehicle for ferrying astronauts to the international space station and ultimately to the moon and Mars. His main goal is to land astronauts on the moon by 2020.

Nasa Administrator Michael Griffin said the new spacecraft will build upon the proven designs and technologies used in the Apollo moon and shuttle programs - "while having far greater capability."

There would be two rockets, one for astronauts and their exploration vehicle and the other for cargo, the propulsion system and the lunar lander.