I was born in 1986, after the Challenger disaster, and it has been a great disappointment to me that after that, the American fascination with space exploration seemed to dissipate. Perhaps it was the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the 'space race.' We no longer had competition, so we didn't see NASA's role as being important anymore. Well, I think that's stupid.
The Space Shuttle is being retired in 2010. Between then and 2015 (possibly 2014), we will depend on Russian spacecrafts to ferry American crews to the International Space Station.
In 2015, Project Constellation, the next generation of American spacecraft is expected to be launched (double entendre intended). This will consist of the Orion crew module, the Ares I and Ares V rocket boosters, and the new Altair lunar module.
The Orion crew module will be able to hold four to six crew members. There will be three different variants of the module--the first for lunar missions, and the second and third for deep space missions.
The Ares boosters perform two separate functions. The Ares I is weaker, taking the module into low-Earth orbit (1240 mi above Earth's surface). It is then jettisoned, and the Ares V takes over. It propels the Earth Departure Stage (EDS) until it, too is jettisoned. The EDS performs in a similar way to the Saturn V rocket's S-IVB (ess-four-bee), which propelled the Apollo lunar modules to the Moon, though the EDS will carry the Altair module.
Now, this is the cool part. Unlike the Apollo missions, in which the lunar and crew modules were launched together, as part of the same stack, the EDS/Altair and the Orion module will be launched separately. Ares V will launch on the first day with the EDS/Altair module. The next day, from an adjacent launchpad, the Ares I rocket will take the Orion module. Each will jettison their boosters and connect in space. From there, depending on the mission, the combined module will head to the Moon or to deep space.
Constellation's goal is to return to the Moon by 2020 and to seek Mars (with some future modification of the Orion module) by 2037.
The story of mankind is the story of exploration. Ever since we stepped out of the cave and opened our eyes, scaled the first hill and discovered tools, we've never stopped in our need to discover what's next. It's what sent us over mountains and across oceans. It's what sought out and conquered the frontier. It's what inspired us to seek the sky and, when we had accomplished that, to seek the stars. There are many critics of NASA and the cost of the space program. Those people don't see the bigger picture. We don't go to space to beat the Russians or to show off the might of America, nor should we. We don't go to test the newest scientific advancements. We go, simply, because it's there. We go because it's untamed and undiscovered and untouched. We go because the heavens call to us, because it's next. I'm excited about Constellation and what it might accomplish. I hope it can spark our national interest again in those bigger things that so enraptured us for a quarter-century--a quarter-century nearly a quarter-century ago.
That's my soapbox. Do mankind a favor and remind yourself why we explore in the first place.