Rogue NASA engineers go underground with retirees and space enthusiasts to design alternative moon rocket

Most of the scientists at NASA say they have the design for the Constellation program with its Ares moon rockets nailed down, and they’re set for flight testing a year from now with hopes for a moon landing by 2020. Their two launch vehicles are pictured at left, with the larger one, about 20 feet taller than the Saturn V that first took humans to the moon, carrying payload such as the lunar lander and the smaller one carrying four astronauts.

But some of those same engineers are secretly working in their spare time along with dozens of retired NASA engineers and space enthusiasts on an alternative design. They’re calling it Jupiter, pictured with the white background at right, and those two rockets are said to be not only cheaper but safer and more powerful than their Ares counterparts.

The Jupiter rockets would use the old shuttle fuel tank design on both rockets, with one booster carrying payload only, but another one of similar size carrying the astronauts and spacecraft. The shuttle fuel tank is already ready to go and perfected through the trial and error of more than a hundred launches. The NASA establishment dismisses the new design, saying it won’t work, while the designers disagree, saying it would save $19 billion in development costs and would be $16 billion cheaper to operate over the years.

It seems unlikely that the Jupiter plan is going to fly this late in the game. Now, if something goes wrong with the Ares flights, those anonymous designers will be muttering to themselves, “I told you so.”