Constellation is NASA’s new program for human space exploration. As part of the Constellation program, NASA plans to develop space vehicles and booster systems which will eventually replace the Space Shuttle. The main goals of the Constellation program are human travel beyond low Earth orbit, to return to the Moon and to expand human presence to Mars.
As of early 2009, missions for the Constellation Program are planned to begin on March 2014 and to continue through 2020. The first stop for the constellation program is at 220 miles above the Earth surface to the International Space Station at the Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The astronauts will then travel 200,000 miles to the Moon. The stay on the Moon will last for a week and will be much more complex than the Apollo missions. The aim of this week long rendezvous on Moon is to explore the possibilities of living and staying on the moon and preparing for a human flight to Mars. Ultimately, the constellation program will have human expedition to the red planet. The mission to Mars will be two and a half year long, with six months of journey each from and to the Station and one and half year of stay for exploration.
The constellation program consist of launch vehicle (Ares I and Ares V boosters), manned space craft (Orion) and lunar lander (Altair).
# Launch Vehicles – Ares I and Ares V
After much consideration, a new rocket system was developed to be used as launch vehicle for this program. It consists of two booster rockets Ares I and Ares V. The two booster system allows each one of them to be optimized to perform their specific missions.
Ares I has a single solid fuel booster rocket which is derived from the Space Shuttle. It connects to a inter-stage new liquid fuel booster at its upper end. Its mission in the Constellation program is to take the astronauts to the International Space Station.
Ares V will have a pair of solid fuel rockets that will burn simultaneously with the liquid fuel rocket, which is much similar to the Space Shuttle. It will have a payload capacity of 188 tonnes to the International Space Station and 71 tonnes capacity to the Moon. After completion, Ares V will become the most powerful rocket ever built. Its mission in the constellation program is to carry the cargo component to the Station and continue the flight to the Moon.
Ares launch vehicles are named after Ares, the Greek god of war.
# Manned space craft – Orion
The manned space craft is named after the constellation Orion. It has a capacity to carry four to six astronauts at a time. Orion is designed to by reused at least 10 times, and therefore allowing NASA to have a fleet of Orion vehicles, each tailored for its specific purpose. In the Constellation program Orion will handle the logistic flight to the International Space Station and after that will become a key component in the human flights to the Moon and the Mars.
Lockheed Martin is the primary contractor for building the Orion Vehicle and Boeing is selected to build the primary heat shield.
# Lunar lander – Altair
The lunar lander is named Altair after the brightest star in the constellation Aquila. It will be used by astronauts for landings on the surface of the Moon. Altair is currently in the design phase and is scheduled to be complete in 2019. It will a capacity to carry four astronauts along with necessary supplies for a week long exploration on the moon surface.
All said, the Constellation program cost and schedule remains uncertain as per U.S. GAO report. NASA is still struggling to develop a solid business case, including firm requirements, mature technologies, a knowledge based acquisition strategy, realistic cost model, sufficient funding and time, needed to justify moving the Constellation program to the implementation phase. This has delayed the schedule and increased the cost for the Constellation program. Hopefully, we will see “mankind’s giant leap” to Mars soon.