The Lockheed Martin Corporation will build the next US spaceship to take humans to the Moon.
Orion will make its first flight no later than 2014
Nasa has awarded a multi-billion-dollar contract to the group to develop the Orion vehicle, which will replace the space shuttle when it retires in 2010.
The agency is dropping the shuttle's winged, reusable design and is going back to the capsule-style ships that first carried Americans into orbit.
Lockheed Martin beat a joint bid from Northrop Grumman and Boeing.
The US space agency wants to fly the Orion vehicles no later than 2014. Initially, they will go to the International Space Station, but Nasa plans to send one to the Moon in 2020.
The capsules will launch atop one-time-use, "single stick" rockets, called Ares, that Nasa is developing.
Two versions are on the drawing board: one to lift Orion and its up-to-six astronauts, the other to loft a service module and other equipment that would be needed to support a mission to the lunar surface.
The idea is that the components would be joined together in Earth orbit before being despatched to the Moon.
Orion will ride atop a single five-segment solid rocket booster
Although reminiscent of the Apollo design, the 16.5ft-wide, 25-tonne Orion spacecraft will incorporate the latest advances in technology in computers, electronics, life support, propulsion and heat protection systems.
Nasa wants the new spacecraft to be a versatile workhorse.
"Our intent is to keep the destination focusing the design but we are not excluding the possibility of using Orion for other things, such as de-orbiting the Hubble Space Telescope in the 2020s or making a trek to an asteroid," said Jeff Hanley, who manages the agency's Constellation Program.
The Lockheed Martin Corporation is the US's largest defence contractor. It also builds commercial and military satellites, and the Atlas series of rockets.
Its Orion team includes booster-rocket maker Orbital Sciences, Honeywell, United Space Alliance and Hamilton Sundstrand, which makes space suits, life support and power management systems.
A Moon mission is planned for 2020
The Nasa contract in its initial phase is worth $3.9bn. This covers the design, development, testing and evaluation of the new spacecraft. Further options could be worth up $3.5bn to Lockheed.
US space policy has shifted in the wake of the 2003 shuttle disaster. President George W Bush has called for a new vision that will take humans beyond low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station, to aim to go back to the Moon and on to Mars.
Russia and Europe, too, are looking to develop a new human space-transportation system.
They are currently engaged in a joint feasibility study that could eventually lead to a rocket and capsule programme that evolves the best aspects of their Soyuz and Ariane technologies.
Nasa has earmarked next Wednesday for the launch of the Atlantis shuttle to International Space Station. The mission has been on hold this past week because of stormy weather in Florida, the site of Nasa's Kennedy spaceport.
(1) The heavy-lift Ares 5 rocket blasts off from Earth carrying a lunar lander and a "departure stage"
(2) Several days later, astronauts launch on an Ares 1 rocket inside their Orion vehicle (CEV)
(3) The Orion docks with the lander and departure stage in Earth orbit and then heads to the Moon
(4) Having done its job of boosting the Orion and lunar lander on their way, the departure stage is jettisoned
(5) At the Moon, the astronauts leave the Orion and enter the lander for the trip to the lunar surface
(6) After exploring the lunar landscape for seven days, the crew blasts off in a portion of the lander
(7) In Moon orbit, they re-join the waiting robot-minded Orion and begin the journey back to Earth
(8) On the way, the service component of the Orion is jettisoned. This leaves just the crew capsule to enter the atmosphere
(9) A heatshield protects the capsule; parachutes bring it down on dry land, probably in California