“The shuttle may be on its way out, but on its way in is the Orion and a little later, NASA’s manned Deep Space Transportation System, meant to be a rocket and capsule system capable of taking astronauts on 21 day journeys out into space. Twenty one days isn’t a lot, and it’s far less than a Mars mission, but it’s a start.
At the heart of NASA’s “Deep Space Transportation System” is a manned crew-capsule-and-rocket combo the agency has tasked Lockheed Martin with cobbling together. Called the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (or MPCV), NASA envisions the spacecraft taking a crew of four astronauts into deep space on missions lasting upwards of 21 days (so, no Mars landings just yet), and then splashing down in the Pacific Ocean just like in the old days. It’s also billed as being “10 times safer during ascent and entry than its predecessor, the space shuttle.”
The MPCV’s crew capsule design takes a direct cue from Orion, which was to fulfill the same role for the Constellation program, an initiative that was canned after it fell behind schedule and over budget.
That four-person limit is down from what the Orion capsule was originally supposed to ferry around at six crew (and lower than the shuttles six to eight), and the craft also doesn’t look like it’ll be able to transport the same heavy loads the Space Shuttle did, such as deploying a satellite into orbit. What it can do is take that crew out of low earth orbit, meaning real-deal, manned outer space exploration and study. It can also dock with the International Space Station, making one wonder if, in the future, the MPCV.