Nasa has confirmed that it will be retiring the Space Shuttle within the next five years and replacing it with a launch system based on the Apollo rocket that was used to make the Moon landing in 1969.
An Apollo-style main booster will be augmented by the side boosters from the Space Shuttle. The new system is being designed to allow the craft to supply the International Space Station and conduct the first trips to the Moon for 30 years.
On top of the booster is a new crew vehicle based on the Apollo design. This will be capable of carrying four astronauts to the Moon and, looking further ahead, enable a six-person crew to make the trip to Mars.
"Best of all, these launch systems are 10 times safer than the Shuttle because of an escape rocket on top of the capsule that can quickly blast the crew away if launch problems develop," said Nasa in a statement.
"There's also little chance of damage from launch vehicle debris since the capsule sits on top of the rocket."
The crew vehicle lands back on Earth via parachute and can be reused up to 10 times, once the heat shield has been replaced. Unlike the Apollo capsule the vehicle will touch down on land.
Nasa estimates that the system would allow two lunar trips a year, with 4-7 days spent on the moon's surface. This would be enough time to set up a lunar base that could then be used as a launch pad for Mars exploration.
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