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NASA's next big rocket promises to keep hope alive

Image: Ares 5
An artist's conception shows the concept for the Ares 5 heavy-lift rocket that was set aside when Project Constellation was canceled. The heavy-lift concept currently under consideration uses some of the same elements that were contemplated for the Ares 5, including shuttle-derived rocket engines, solid rocket boosters and the Apollo-derived J-2X upper-stage engine.NASA file

With the final space shuttle launch just days away, NASA may not be bumped from its first place in space.

After months of reviews and more reviews, and after executive-level arguments between Congress and the White House that kept America’s space program essentially stalled, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has stepped forward with a decision that sets his agency's future course.

The two-star Marine Corps general and veteran space shuttle astronaut reached into his bag of “things that work,” and to the satisfaction of most, came up with a heavy-lift rocket derived from the retiring space shuttle and the Apollo moon program.

The huge rocket is to use improved and bigger versions of the shuttle's solid rocket boosters, the shuttle’s liquid core engines, and the famed J-2 rocket engine from the Apollo flights to the moon.  Using these proven elements should enable America to fly this new rocket by 2016. 

Earlier this year, NASA decided on a multipurpose crew vehicle that can haul astronauts not only to Earth orbit, but also carry them to asteroids and other deep-space targets.

The new spaceship is essentially the craft named Orion that had been planned for Constellation, a project canceled by President Barack Obama. Similarly, the new heavy-lift rocket will use hardware from what would have been Project Constellation's big rocket, the Ares 5.

NASA plans to announce the heavy-lift plan, formally known as the Space Launch System or SLS, around the time of the July 8 launch of the final space shuttle flight. The decision should keep America’s renowned spaceflight program running, saving the jobs of many of NASA’s hard-to-replace engineers.

Shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach spoke frankly about the space effort's future in remarks he made to his launch team at Kennedy Space Center this month, during preparations for the shuttle Atlantis' program-ending mission.

"The end of the shuttle program is a tough thing to swallow, and we’re all victims of poor policy out of Washington, D.C., both at the NASA level and the executive branch of the government, and it affects all of us — it affects most of you — severely," Leinbach told his team.

“I’m embarrassed that we don’t have better guidance out of Washington, D.C.  Throughout the history of the manned space flight program, we’ve always had another program to transition into — from Mercury to Gemini, and to Apollo, to the Apollo-Soyuz test program, to Skylab and then to the shuttle. We’ve always had something to transition into.

“And we had that, and it got canceled and now we don’t have anything, and I’m embarrassed that we don’t.  Frankly, as a senior NASA manager, I’d like to apologize to you all that we don’t have that. So there you are. I love you all. I wish you all the best.

“We will press on through this flow and this launch in the way we always do.  We’re going to play this game to the final out, and we’ll be done.  I just wish you all the best, and again Godspeed to you all. Thank you.”

The Launch Control Center exploded with applause as the team moved into its final countdown, not aware that the recent moves in Washington may just save the distinction to which they dedicated their careers: America’s first place in space.

NBC News' Jay Barbree is the only journalist to cover every spaceflight flown by astronauts from Cape Canaveral. He has won NASA’s highest medal for public service and the National Space Club’s 2009 Press Award. Barbree also has written several books about the space effort, including an updated version of "Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Apollo Moon Landings," available from , , , and .