The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is pushing space exploration to the limits with the Constellation research program. The goal of the Constellation program is to design and build the next generation of launch and transport vehicles that will take astronauts to Earth orbit and beyond. As the Space Shuttle inches towards retirement, the new vehicles that will result from the Constellation research program will replace the functions that the Shuttle currently provides, and add many new capabilities, including reaching towards the Moon and Mars.
Next Generation Vehicles
The Constellation program is currently developing four different vehicles to meet many of NASA's current and future needs:
- Ares I - Ares I is a launch vehicle that will carry astronauts into space from the Earth. Ares I is powered by a solid rocket with five sections, and will be topped by the Orion crew module.
- Ares V - Ares V is a launch vehicle that will carry cargo into space from the Earth. Ares V will be the largest launch vehicle ever built, even larger than the Saturn rocket systems. Ares V will be the workhorse of the NASA fleet, moving heavy cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and to low-Earth orbit for other missions.
- Orion - Orion is a crew transport module that will be launched using the Ares I launch vehicle. The Orion crew module can dock with the ISS as well as carry crew to the moon. The Orion module will be able to transport four to six astronauts in its intended configuration. Unlike the transport modules used in the Apollo program, the Orion module will include solar panels that can be deployed while in space to generate power for the module.
- Altair - Altair is a lunar lander module that will deliver astronauts to the surface of the Moon and return them to their orbiting vehicle. Unlike the lunar lander modules used in the Apollo program, the Altair module will be launched as cargo on an Ares V rocket, and the crew will connect the Altair module to the Orion crew module in low Earth orbit. The Altair module will act as a moon base for up to a week, and can also be flown as an unmanned unit for cargo supply missions.
According to NASA's Integrated Milestone document, orbital test launches of the Orion crew transport module on the Ares I launch vehicle are planned to begin in 2013 with the ISS as a destination. Ares V test launches are planned for 2015, with flights to the moon planning to start in 2016.