That swell picture above shows an engineer inspecting the heat shield of an Orion space capsule, and unless you're really up on that stuff your reaction is probably "the who the what?!"
After just a few more flights, NASA will retire the Space Shuttle fleet. In fact, I read a recent article that said the space agency is looking for museums willing to take them off their hands (unfortunately, I think they're removing the engines first). I have no great love for the shuttle, which cost more than projected, flew less frequently than promised, and stranded humanity in low-Earth orbit for 40 years. And, incidentally, killed 14 people, although any means of getting humans into space involves enormous energy and advanced technology that carries big risk, so I don't really hold that against it. Still, putting the shuttles out to pasture distresses me because I remember when they were shiny and new, and that makes me feel tarnished and old. Plus, any spaceship is by definition cool.
The replacement program is called Constellation, which'll draw upon lessons learned from the shuttles, Apollo, etc. to produce spaceships with a decidedly retro look. For example, after Challenger and Columbia, NASA figured it's probably best to keep astronauts on top of the rocket so that anything that blows up or falls off during flight won't hit them. In fact, the new Orion capsule looks like nothing less than an oversized Apollo capsule. It'll launch atop a new Ares multi-stage rocket, and unfurl parachutes to land in the ocean just like Apollo did. And it'll need a big ol' heat shield to survive the inferno of re-entry, which is what's upside-down in that picture above.
What I didn't realize until I found this nice photo essay on Boston.com is how far along NASA is. They're testing engines, gathering and assembling components, building launch towers, and looking like they really mean it. They're talking about making an unmanned test flight as early as this July. In addition to the Orion crew module and Ares rocket, NASA is designing a lunar lander called Altair. These crazy kids just might pull it off!
I find this very interesting and exciting stuff. I don't have quite the dewey-eyed idealism I did when I was a kid, and I'm not really sure that people need to be in space at all. Almost everything humans can do in space, machines can do better--except actually live there, and while colonization for its own sake is good enough reason for me, I don't know how it'd sell to all the other taxpayers. Still, NASA's funding is such a tiny slice of the Federal budget that, on balance and in terms of bang for our buck, I think manned spaceflight is worth it.
The cost of the entire Apollo Program, adjusted for inflation, was about $150 billion. For the nearly $800 billion Congress and the president just poured down a rat hole (sorry, committed to stimulating our economy), we could've had five of 'em. I know where I'd rather put my money.
The Ares I (left) and Ares V launch vehicles,
coming soon to a planet near you