The crew expedition vehicle, called Orion, is modeled after the Apollo capsules and will be launched atop a rocket.
The spacecraft will be able to transport four crew members to the moon, and later support trips to Mars. It can carry up to six crew members to the International Space Station.
“This is the first human-rated spacecraft to take astronauts from Earth to orbit that we have developed in over 30 years,” said Scott Horowitz of NASA, according to CBS News. “This is an exciting time to be at NASA. Project Orion will return America back to the moon and to the destinations beyond.”
The amount of the contract for Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., to design, develop, test and evaluate the vehicle is $3.9 billion.
Orion is expected to take its first test flight in September 2014 to the ISS, and astronauts could return to the moon by late 2019 or 2020, according to NASA.
Although shaped like the Apollo command modules of the 1960s, Orion would contain the latest technology in computers, electronics, life support, propulsion and heat protection systems, the space agency said.
The 25-ton capsule will have a conical shape — the most reliable for re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere. The inside will be two-and-a-half-times more spacious than the Apollo.
The spacecraft is planned to return humans to the moon for long periods to prepare for the longer journey to Mars.
NASA expects new launch systems will be 10 times safer than the shuttle because of an escape rocket on top that can blast the crew away in case problems arise during launch. Also, the problem of falling debris that has plagued NASA during its last few space shuttle launches should no longer be an issue, since the capsule will sit atop the rocket.
In 1996, NASA awarded a contract to Lockheed Martin of Bethesda, Md., for a space shuttle replacement called the X-33, but it never got built because of technical problems, reported the Associated Press.
Lockheed Martin has built several unmanned spacecraft, including the 1998 Lunar Prospector, 1976 Viking probes of Mars, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and the 1999 Mars Climate Orbiter.