The end of the space shuttle era is coming soon.

The United States begins its next step in human space flight with the announcement by NASA on Thursday of a contractor to design and build spaceships to fly to the moon.

Lockheed Martin Corp and a partnership of Northrop Grumman Corp. and Boeing Co are vying for the work, estimated to be worth more than $18 billion over the next decade.

“We’re looking forward to getting that contractor on board with us as we continue our journey on into exploration,” project manager Skip Hatfield said.

The new spaceships, named Orion, will replace the U.S. space agency’s three remaining space shuttles, which are to be retired in 2010 upon completion of the half-built International Space Station.

After two deadly shuttle accidents, NASA is giving up on winged, reusable vehicles and returning to the capsule-style spaceships that first carried Americans into orbit and later landed them on the moon. Similar vessels are used by Russia and China.

The space enthusiast in me is a little disappointed. The shuttle was, in theory, a great cost saver, since it was reusable, and could land at different places if the weather at the main landing site wasn’t good. (OK, and seeing some new kind of space ship had a really high Coolness Factor.)

But if capsules can indeed be made and used for less money, I guess I’ll understand. They’re certainly not without risk themselves, but perhaps in this day and age they can be made safer. (Still, space travel is always risky, no matter what the precautions.)

Sorry to see her go, but hopefully this will get things going again.

H/T: Danny Carlton

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