Friday, March 25, 2011

What's next for NASA: A new space shuttle? A mission to Mars?

With Discovery's retirement, this year marks a turning point in NASA's history. At the end of the year, the familiar orca-like space shuttle will depart from the public eye as NASA looks to create something that can take a person deeper into space than ever before.

Last year, Obama lit the fuse for NASA's blastoff into the post-shuttle world with a renewed commitment to explore deep-space destinations (like Mars) and to create jobs in the process. With a $6 billion budget over the next five years -- on top of $50 million worth of NASA contracts awarded to commercial companies like Boeing -- we should expect great things. Here are some of the projects in the works:

Orion Spacecraft
First announced by President Bush in 2004 as the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) for President Bush's Project Constellation, the Orion spacecraft will carry an astronaut back to the moon. Bush's original goal was for a 2015 lunar landing, but because of program reviews under the Obama administration, Orion is scheduled to make its first launch into Earth's orbit without passengers in 2014 -- a mission to the moon would likely happen five years later. Designed by Lockheed Martin for NASA, the spacecraft very much resembles the familiar Apollo spacecrafts that carried man to the moon nearly 50 years ago and can carry a crew of four astronauts.

Mars Science Laboratory
Scheduled to be launched this November and land on Mars in August 2012, the Mars Science Laboratory is exactly what it sounds like. With the help of a new rover named Curiosity, the lab's chief mission is to determine whether Mars is habitable, and with a sophisticated set of drills, shovels, cameras and sensors, it carries over 10 times the weight of instruments as previous Mars rovers.

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