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EXCLUSIVE: Will Morpheus Be the First Vehicle on the Moon Since Apollo?

Project Morpheus

At left, engineers with Project Morpheus prepare for cryogenic nitrogen testing at NASA's Johnson Space Center. At right, NASA tests a Lunar Landing Research Vehicle in 1967, as preparation for the Apollo mission. (NASA)

Nearly 40 years after Americans last set foot on the moon, a determined band of NASA engineers, undeterred by massive budget cuts and red tape, may have paved the way for a long awaited return to the lunar surface.

In 2009, President Obama slashed the Constellation project, a nearly $100 billion project to replace the aging space shuttle fleet with a group of new spacecraft that could ultimately take man to the moon and beyond. Lockheed Martin unveiled Orion last week, a last-gasp effort to continue a small part of that project -- but the end of Constellation seemed the death of America’s lunar ambitions to many.

But not to everyone.

A group of NASA engineers -- acting on their own initiative to find funding in other research and development projects, and in partnership with an aerospace startup, together with their own sweat equity -- have designed and built a breakthrough piece of technology: the first new lunar landing craft from the space agency in 40 years.

Meet Project Morpheus. Final destination: the moon.

The heart of the NASA engineers' project is a fully functioning lunar lander, which they hope could replicate the stunning achievements of Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and the other heroes that made up the Apollo missions. That program made the United States the first and only nation to put men on the surface of the moon, and ended with Gene Cernan's footsteps in 1972 with Apollo 17.

It’s the first time in years that NASA has designed and constructed a space flight vehicle, Matt Ondler, project manager for Morpheus, told FoxNews.com.

“Anything similar to this was when Neil Armstrong flew a lunar lander prototype at Ellington Field in the late 60s,” Ondler said. Similar to landers used then, the vehicle would be used for the last stages of a lunar descent -- liftoff and touchdown on the moon -- and is capable of flying 1 mile upward and 1 mile horizontally in the air.

After they put on the finishing touches, the creators of Morpheus hope to give the lander a test run on May 4th, he told FoxNews.com. “We’re getting ready to fly this new vehicle on site at Johnson Space Center, and it’s really going to be a unique experience,” he said.

The Morpheus lander is derived from an earlier NASA project called Project M -- an initiative that entailed sending NASA’s humanoid robot Robonaut 2 to the moon. The plug was pulled on the project over doubts that the robot was ready, as well as over budget concerns. But unwilling to give up, the Project M team decided to refocus their work on the lunar lander technology, giving birth to Morpheus.

“We’re really focusing on two technologies,” Ondler told FoxNews.com. “One is autonomous and hazardous avoidance. It has sensors on board that allow it to detect hazards in the environment and adjust its trajectory to land in a safe spot.”

“The other is the propulsion system -- liquid methane,” Ondler added. “You can make the methane from water on the moon; there’s lots of water trapped in craters on the moon. So that allows you to not carry all of your fuel with you. You can arrive at a planet and make fuel yourself on the surface.”

While the Morpheus prototype and design are that of NASA’s, the concept stems from a similar lander created by Armadillo Aerospace, an aerospace startup based in Mesquite, Texas. NASA was turned on to Armadillo after the company won NASA’s lunar lander challenge in 2009 -- a contest that ultimately created the idea for Morpheus.

“Our vehicle was called Pixel,” Neil Milburne, vice president for Armadillo Aerospace, told FoxNews.com. “We had flown it a number of times -- only 25 to 30 meters high. But we had a bunch of folks come in from JSC to witness the flight. Once we demonstrated what was physically possible, we realized we needed to supersize this thing and put a bigger engine on there," he said.

"NASA’s Morpheus is the next generation of that vehicle,” Milburne said.

Will Morpheus’s test run on Earth be followed by the real deal on the moon? Maybe, maybe not. The lander is meant only to test lunar lander technologies, although those at NASA certainly hope to expand on Morpheus and see a full scale lander in action someday.

The ultimate approval for Project Morpheus will lie with the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, and its head, Obama's chief science advisor John Holdren.

Holdren's office told FoxNews.com that it could not comment on the project.

Milburne says the collaboration between NASA and Armadillo Aerospace is the perfect example of what the Obama administration is looking to promote. Because of Armadillo’s involvement, Milburne claims that budget was extremely cheap for NASA, equaling about half a million dollars.

“We can do missions to low Earth orbit -- not as easily, but certainly less expensively than NASA," Milburne said. "People always see manned space flight as NASA’s domain, but we need to start moving away from that. Then NASA can focus on the grander missions at hand.”

“It’s a little strange for us to see our administration pull back from human space flight when the whole rest of the developing world is going in the opposite direction,” Ondler told FoxNews.com. “We’re continuing to fall behind countries like China and India. They’re producing more and more engineers, so we need to be able to graduate more people in the sciences and engineering. And you inspire them by iconic activities like this."

According to Ondler, the ones being inspired haven’t just been students.

“Seeing how energized and how excited people are here at NASA has been incredible. This project has allowed a bunch of smart and dedicated people to be at their best,” he said.