Missions farther into space could be planned in the next decade
While the mundane operations, like resupplying the ISS, are taken care of by private companies, NASA can finally start focusing on the bigger missions.
It's been working on a new spaceship to replace the Shuttle – but designed to go much further – and the huge rocket to carry it.
The ship is called Orion and it's been in the works for years now. Like everything NASA does, it's been affected by budget cuts, but the project is in the home stretch now.
The latest plans are to have it put in orbit around Earth as early as 2014, to test critical systems.
The Orion capsule, similar to the Apollo era capsules, though bigger and far more advanced, is designed to carry humans into deeper and lengthier trips than NASA has done in a long time.
It has four seats and could take humans to the Moon, but also to nearby asteroids or even to Mars in the more distant future.
The first test flight, dubbed Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will take place in 2014, but it will be on top of a Delta IV Heavy rocket.
The ship will be unmanned; the first manned mission is scheduled for 2021 at the earliest.
Space Launch SystemA second test of the spaceship will also include the first test flight of the rocket designed to carry it, NASA's next-generation Space Launch System (SLS).
SLS is not without its critics, but it's the only thing NASA has and the result of compromise and budget cuts. Still, it's the launch vehicle for most exploration missions for the foreseeable future.
The first flight test will be in 2017 when it will take an unmanned Orion into space and push it towards the Moon for a return trip.
But SLS will push the spacecraft's way beyond the Moon, the plans is to possibly have return missions to Jupiter's Europa or Saturn's Titan or new missions for Pluto.
The first flight will be of the standard configuration that's only capable of putting 70 tons, 154,000 pounds of cargo into low-Earth orbit. Future configurations of the launch vehicle will be able to carry 130 tons, 286,000 pounds.