Scripps Howard News Service: Last week the Bush administration put a down payment on its promise to return astronauts to the moon and eventually land a manned vehicle on Mars.
Lockheed Martin beat out two rival aerospace companies for a contract closing in on $8 billion to build a spaceship capable of meeting a tall order of requirements: it must replace the shuttles, resupply the space station, ferry astronauts back and forth to the moon and be the prototype for a manned spaceship that can reach Mars.
And, as space exploration goes, it must do so on a relatively tight timetable. The launch rocket will test-fly in 2009. The shuttles are to be retired in 2010 and the new spacecraft should be ready for a test flight in 2014, but preferably 2013. And the return to the moon should come in 2019 or 2020.
It's called 'Orion'
The spacecraft, to be called Orion, consists of nested crew and service modules, with its own engine for maneuvering in space and an escape rocket to pull the crew module clear of the launch rocket in an emergency. Altogether, it will be 260 feet high sitting on the launch pad.
While unmanned space exploration has forged ahead, the Orion might be this generation's last real shot at manned space flight beyond just servicing the space station. The shuttles are being retired, and if Orion comes a cropper, there's nothing else beyond the drawing-board stage.
It might be fairly asked if the United States should be embarking on a major space venture when it is enmeshed in wars abroad, when we are spending ourselves into penury at home and when our politics are suffused with poison and pessimism. The question might be fairly answered: What better time? We have to dream.