NASA may have shut down the space shuttle program, but the quest to explore space continues. In fact, the end of the shuttle program has led to greater focus on and anticipation of the Orion space capsule.
The Orion capsule was commissioned by President George W. Bush as part of a plan for the United States to return to the moon. A prototype of Orion was created by Lockheed Martin before the company was awarded an $8 billion contract in 2006 to begin building it.
President Obama canceled the program in 2009. However, in April 2010, he reinstated it. After a contentious fight this spring between the White House and Congress over the fiscal 2011 budget, Orion squeaked by yet again, but not without a warning from the Senate Appropriations Committee. In a press release, the panel wrote that Congress would be “holding NASA’s feet to the fire” to build the capsule.
NASA appears to be heeding that warning. On Sept. 9, construction started on the first space-bound Orion capsule at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana. The first weld was made on what NASA has referred to as “Apollo on steroids.”
Orion is slated to be the vehicle for the first manned spaceflight since Atlantis landed in July. But Orion, unlike its capsule predecessors, will not be sending astronauts to the moon. Obama has ordered NASA to emphasize asteroid and Mars missions over lunar missions. The United States has not sent a person to the moon since the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.
However, that doesn’t mean NASA is ignoring the moon. In fact, on Sept. 6, the agency announced that a lunar orbiter had taken the clearest pictures yet of the moon’s surface. The images show astronauts’ footprints and the backpacks and other materials they left behind. Then, on Saturday, NASA launched two unmanned spacecraft to discover what the inside of the moon is made of. The two craft will not land on the moon but will orbit it to collect data and map the moon’s gravity field.
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