The space shuttle is history. And NASA took a huge step forward towards the future by awarding a multibillion-dollar contract to Lockheed Martin to build the replacement craft, which would put a man on the moon again and be a precursor to a ship that would go to Mars, The Washington Post reports.
"It's just thrilling, for all of us," said Skip Hatfield, NASA's project manager. The vehicle, known as Orion, is the embodiment of the "very future of human space flight," he said.
Orion is something of a cross between the old Apollo craft and the shuttle. It will look like Apollo but will carry up to six astronauts. Like the shuttle, Orion will carry cargo to and from the International Space Station.
NASA plans to launch Orion by 2014 and make a moon landing by 2020.
Unlike the shuttle, which lands like an airplane on a runway, Orion will descend with the aid of a parachute to landings in the ocean or on land. NASA plans to build two of the vehicles, one for manned flight and the other for unmanned. After judging how often the spaceships can be reused, the agency will decide how many more to buy, Hatfield said.
The choice of Lockheed was something of a surprise since the company had not built a manned space vehicle before. AP reports:
"NASA decided to do something different and go with a company that has not been in manned space before, sort of spreading the wealth and making sure they've got two contractors that know the manned space business," said aerospace industry analyst Paul Nisbet, president of JSA Research.
But it's not clear if Orion will actually get off the ground. The Government Accountability Office questioned NASA's approach, saying, "This approach increases the risk that the project will encounter significant cost overruns, schedule delays and decreased capability." "I was surprised. I thought that NASA would want to put a new face on this program," said Marco A. Caceres, senior analyst and director of space studies for the Teal Group, a research firm. "Lockheed had a chance with the X-33 program," which was supposed to replace the shuttle but was cancelled in 2003.