A New Age of Space Exploration

"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.

What if We Stopped Exploring?

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?"

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