CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - There are only about 16 flights left before NASA?s space shuttle fleet retires in 2010, but an ambitious plan is in place to have a replacement spacecraft ready by 2013.
?There is a two-thirds statistical likelihood of being successful in meeting that  date, but our plan is much more aggressive than that,? said Jeff Hanley, program manager for NASA?s Constellation program. ?We?re trying to get the [initial operating capabilities] by as early as 2013.?
Hanley said the year-old Constellation program is currently in the formulation phase and trying to secure parts for the new spacecraft. A test flight of an Ares I rocket could begin as early as 2009, with a piloted test to follow as soon as 2013, Hanley said.
?At the end of this year, we will have all the major elements under contract to build the rocket and the spacecraft to take us back into low-Earth orbit and our first steps back toward the Moon,? said Scott Horowitz, NASA?s associate administrator for exploration systems.
The Ares rockets will contain features from both the current shuttle and the old Saturn rockets that carried the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. Ares I is a two-stage rocket designed to loft NASA?s new capsule-based vehicle, Orion, into orbit. Its larger, cargo-only counterpart is Ares V, which will be the most powerful rocket ever built and capable of carrying five to six times more payload than the shuttle.
Orion will replace the shuttle as NASA?s vehicle to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, and it will also be the vehicle the agency plans to use to return to the Moon in 2020.
NASA plans to launch at least 13 shuttle flights dedicated to ISS construction through 2010, with the option of two additional logistics missions if feasible. A final mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope is also slated to launch in September 2008.?
- NASA'S Orion Program: Hardware Progresses, Challenges Ahead
- IMAGES: NASA's Next Spaceship
- VIDEO: A New Era of Exploration with NASA's Orion and Ares