Nasa takes one small step and selects craft to put people on Mars

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President Bush's pledge to revive the US space programme has moved a step nearer fulfilment afterLockheed Martin won the contract to build a craft to send astronauts back to the Moon - and later perhaps on a manned flight to Mars.

The craft, named the Orion, resembles a larger version of the Apollo module that last took men to the Moon in 1972. It will replace Nasa's Space Shuttle, which will be taken out of service in four years' time.

Orion is not scheduled to make its first manned flight until 2013 at the earliest, meaning there will be a three-year interval in which the US will have no craft to service the International Space Station.

Unlike the Shuttle, which which flies back to Earth, lands on a runway and can make dozens of flights, Orion will not be reusable. It will be blasted into space on a multi-stage rocket named Ares, which is scheduled to make its first test flight in 2009.

After completing its mission, the module will return to Earth by parachute, in the same way as the Apollo craft. There, however, the similarities mostly end. Orion will take six men into orbit, and be capable of landing as many as four on the Moon. Like the Shuttle it will be able to carry equipment and supplies to the space station.

Though it will employ the basic and proven Apollo design, the new craft will have infinitely superior electronics and computer technology - leading some Nasa officials to call the project "Apollo on steroids".

Skip Hatfield, the space agency's project manager described the Orion craft as, "the very future of human space flight".

Nasa's timetable calls for a Moon landing by 2020 - almost half a century after the Apollo 17 mission of December 1972, when men landed on the Moon for the last time. Some time after that, Orion might attempt to travel to Mars in the first manned mission to another planet in the solar system.

Both the space agency and Mr Bush hope the new programme, which is estimated to cost a total of $230bn (£121bn), will rekindle public enthusiasm for space travel, which is still recovering from the Columbia disaster of 2003, and repeated delays to Space Shuttle launches after missions resumed last year. The award of the Orion contract, worth a total $8.2bn, represents a notable success for Lockheed Martin, after the forced cancellation in 2001 of its X-33 "space plane" project, originally conceived as the Shuttle's replacement but beset by technical problems.

For the first time Lockheed will lead a manned space project. The big loser is Boeing, the rival bidder to Lockheed which had been widely expected to be Nasa's choice.

Despite the current revival in its commercial aviation business, Boeing's space division has suffered a series of difficulties. So troubled was its spy satellite programme that the Pentagon eventually transferred the business to Lockheed, and Boeing engineers had to shoulder some of the blame for the loss of Columbia.

Boeing is also a major contractor for the space station, which has been plagued by cost overruns. Many experts warn that Orion could experience a similar fate. Nasa projects tend to run 50 per cent or more over initial budget mainly because the company that wins the contract tends to be a monopoly supplier, with little incentive to stay within budget.