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NASA is about to send a new spaceship into orbit. It's a test flight. The craft is unmanned, but it is designed to carry people - first time the space agency has set up such a craft since the shuttle program ended in 2011. This spacecraft has so far received surprisingly little public notice, as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: NASA's last big thing was the space shuttle. And before that, there was the Apollo program. Here at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, Mallory Loe is looking at the very Apollo capsule that took the first astronauts to the moon.
MALLORY LOE: There's something about the exploration that people need. I think it's great.
BRUMFIEL: She knows quite a bit about space. But when I ask her about NASA's next spaceship...
LOE: NASA's next spaceship - I mean, technically, NASA doesn't have another spaceship, do they?
BRUMFIEL: I'm not trying to pick on Loe here. There were plenty of other space fans in the lobby, and none of them had a clue what this new spaceship would be like.
VINICIO DEL VALLE: Maybe it will look more like in the movies, maybe something like that, yeah?
ANDREW MCCAIN: And it would take tourists into space because I know that's what they're trying to work on.
BRUMFIEL: Vinicio del Valle and Andrew McCain there, and sorry guys, you're both wrong. The new spaceship is no tourist vessel, and it doesn't look like some flashy sci-fi prop.
CHARLES BOLDEN: It looks like the top of an ice cream cone, although not quite as rounded as the top of an ice cream cone.
BRUMFIEL: NASA administrator Charles Bolden. The new spacecraft is called Orion.
BOLDEN: And it's built specifically to take humans to deep space, somewhere we've never been before.
BRUMFIEL: It's very different from the space shuttle, which looked like a plane and could glide back to Earth and land on a runway. The shuttle looked cool, but it had some serious limitations.
BOLDEN: Winged vehicles are very, very difficult to design and build and operate.
BRUMFIEL: See when you reenter the Earth's atmosphere from deep space, you're going fast. All that speed generates heat as you hit the atmosphere; wings just get in the way. You need a shape that's simple and tough.
BOLDEN: I am told by all my aerodynamics friends and my rocket friends that the conical shape is the best shape for us.
BRUMFIEL: And that's why, on the outside at least, the new Orion looks almost exactly like the old Apollo capsules sitting in the museum. The Apollo 11 capsule, which carried a Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, is gray, about the size of a midsized car and inside it looks cramped.
MARCIA SMITH: To me, personally, it's amazing that three people could fit in there and stay in there for, you know, a week or so to get over the moon and back.
BRUMFIEL: Marcia Smith is editor of spacepolicyonline.com. And she still remembers those Apollo missions to the moon.
SMITH: I think Apollo evokes, for me, the excitement of exploring new worlds.
BRUMFIEL: The new capsule will be a little bigger, but it will hold four people instead of three. So it won't feel much roomier. Orion may be designed for deep space, but its first mission will be back to the moon. Well, not exactly - the plan is to have a robot capture a small asteroid and drag it back to lunar orbit. Then Orion will carry the astronauts to meet it. It's all supposed to happen in the 2020s, though critics say the mission is too complicated and not much of an advance. After all, we've circled around the moon several times before.
SMITH: To be honest, the mission really hasn't excited a lot of enthusiasm. So I don't know if that's actually going to turn out to be true or not.
BRUMFIEL: The other obvious choices would be to take the capsule back to the moon itself or on to Mars. But Smith says getting to the moon, you'd need a lander. And to get to Mars, NASA would need to build the crew a larger habitation module. At the moment, the space agency only has the budget for its little capsule and a new rocket it needs to carry it. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News.
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