With a new launch vehicle and a new spacecraft beginning to take shape, NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration is becoming reality. The vision — elegant in its simplicity and bold in its outlook — continues to build on the legacy of nearly 50 years of spaceflight forged by the pioneers and explorers of Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and space shuttle. The transition from space shuttle to the next generation of space transportation systems has begun.

There is no doubt that the space shuttle is a truly marvelous flying machine. Capable of going from zero to 17,500 miles per hour in a little over eight minutes, carrying seven astronauts and more than 25 tons of cargo, this vehicle is a product of American genius. There is no other vehicle like it and no other country able to produce and operate such a magnificent spaceship.

The recent successful Discovery mission reflects NASA’s determination in maintaining this valuable launch system to complete the international space station, providing an orbiting platform for research while also following through on our commitments to our major space allies in Europe, Japan, Canada and Russia.

Following the completion of the international space station and perhaps another mission to repair and stretch the life of the Hubble Space Telescope, the space shuttle will have served its main purpose. Retirement for the shuttle, scheduled for 2010, is right around the corner.

As the door closes on the space shuttle era, another door opens and another magnificent journey begins.

NASA’s vision is to build upon the last 40 years of space travel by utilizing the technological foundation we have built to move beyond earth orbit and go back to the Moon and on to Mars. And in this journey lies the greatest benefits.

For the last 40 years, America has benefited from the technology and scientific breakthroughs associated with our initial journey to the Moon in the 1960s. Countless spin-offs from technology spawned by human spaceflight have changed our way of life. Space travel captivated a nation and generations of young people followed the dream into fields of science, engineering, mathematics, chemistry and physics. With this wave of enthusiasm came a transformation of technology in a wide variety of applications that has maintained America’s technological and economic leadership of the world for nearly half a century.

But the generations who followed the excitement of Apollo and changed the face of technology are aging. New generations, without a vision for space exploration, have not followed in the footsteps of our early space explorers. America today graduates fewer than 70,000 engineers annually. In contrast, Japan, India and China graduate more than 700,000 engineers annually. Where is the technology leadership going to come from in the decades ahead? And if another supplants our technological leadership, what becomes of our economic leadership and influence?

Why go back to the Moon? I can talk about the Moon’s abundance of helium-3 as a future energy source, an astronomical base from which we can explore the universe, and a celestial base where we can learn to live outside the boundaries of Earth. There are clear and significant benefits attached to each of those opportunities.

But more importantly, the journey back to the Moon and on to Mars is all about the excitement, the adventure and the enthusiasm of younger generations who will follow the call of exploration. And with NASA’s vision for exploration, those inspired generations will maintain and enhance our technological prowess, create new inventions and make the new scientific, medical and technology breakthroughs necessary to compete in a global economy. NASA’s vision will shape our future, just as NASA’s past changed our lives for the better.

NASA has developed a plan that is elegant in its simplicity, bold in its outlook and affordable in this time of challenging budgets. With NASA’s total budget only seven-tenths of 1 percent (0.7 percent ) of the federal budget, it is one of the best investments our nation can make in the future.

Ron Dittemore is president of ATK Launch Systems Group.