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.
"The fact that its external profile looks similar to Apollo shouldn't make people think that it's identical inside," said Hoffman. "The Wright brothers' airplane had wings and a tail and a propeller, but it doesn't look anything like a modern aircraft."
NASA says the capsule "borrows its shape from space capsules of the past, but takes advantage of the latest technology in computers, electronics, life support, propulsion and heat-protection systems."
Included in Orion's state-of-the-art features is a comprehensive abort system that includes an escape rocket atop the 25-ton vehicle.
Developed at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the "escape tower" lives on top of the crew capsule, as in the Apollo crafts and earlier designs.
"In the event of a launch emergency, the tower's small motors are designed to ignite and quickly separate the crew module from the rocket," reads a description on NASA's Web site. "A series of parachutes then automatically deploys to lower the crew safely back to Earth."
The unit highlights NASA's need to add more robust safety features to this new generation of craft, since the agency came under fire after the 2003 Shuttle Columbia disaster in which seven astronauts were killed.
Experts say that despite the redesign, the reinvigorating announcements of support from the White House and renewed excitement in the public sector, there may still be bumps along to the road to putting humans back in space.
"We need to decide as a country whether or not we want to be Earth-bound for the rest of mankind's existence," said Dickman. "If you really want to push the edge of the tech envelope, you do it at risk."
While there is a risk in doing it, Hoffman pointed out that the risk associated with not doing is even greater.
"Humans have always wanted to explore," Hoffman said. "And in this country, a lot of our natural psyche has been defined by space exploration. We [the United States] were the first ones to put a man on the moon and we're proud of that. … It opens up people's minds. It excites students. And if we stop doing it, other people are not going to stop doing it.
"I wonder what the reaction of people in this country would be if the next person to stand on the moon is Chinese?"