When man returns to the moon and then travels on to Mars sometime in the next couple of decades, it will be aboard the space program's latest and most technologically advanced craft yet. NASA announced today that Lockheed Martin will be the company to build the new craft.
Formerly known by the uninspired name "Crew Exploration Vehicle," NASA's next generation spacecraft has been dubbed "Orion" -- and many of the program's hopes and dreams are riding on it.
"NASA's got to get it done," said Robert Dickman, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. "They have to get this vehicle on contract, and the contractors have to deliver on time and on budget."
Though Dickman touts the benefits of the space program and thinks this craft will be successful, critics have questioned the necessity of a taxpayer-funded program that costs billions of dollars and has produced some dramatic tragedies.
When NASA scientists sat down to design the original space shuttle, they wanted something that was designed for low-Earth orbit (orbits that occur 200 to 2000 kilometers above the earth's surface) and could take off and land relatively frequently. Unfortunately, the craft turned out to be expensive and difficult to operate.
With a redesign of the craft, the agency intended Orion to be a way to get back to what it was doing during the Apollo missions -- exploring.
"What we're hoping is to be able to travel in space beyond the earth -- a capability which we had and basically threw away [after Apollo]," explained Jeffery Hoffman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT. "There was a time when this country could send people beyond the Earth to explore, and for a whole generation we haven't been able to do that."
Though Hoffman conceded the program suffered a great loss with the Shuttle Columbia tragedy, he said support for the space program and space exploration remains strong.
"This is an outgrowth of the Columbia tragedy, in the sense that the investigation rightly pointed out that human space flight since the end of Apollo has lacked a definable goal," he said.
Since President Bush announced plans to get humans to Mars, NASA has concentrated on refocusing the program to get back on track -- and back to outer space.
And that could mean a number of exciting and almost science-fiction-like achievements on the horizon.
"Going to the moon, and staying there and colonizing it, and then heading to Mars," said Dickman. "This [Orion] is a relatively low-risk approach to making those things happen."
Though Orion project manager Skip Hatfield cautions that the space program has a ways to go before it's putting people in permanent settlements on other planets -- or moons -- it doesn't keep him from getting excited.
"I've been a space geek since I was little kid. I'm from the Apollo generation and I was inspired by President Kennedy's words -- that's why I'm involved in the space program to help advance that vision," he said.
Unlike a shuttle, Orion has a conical shape -- like the capsules used in the Apollo missions -- which NASA says has proven to be the safest and most reliable for re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere.
But don't be fooled by the craft's apparently dated design.