People have always been fascinated with the stars. With a mix of awe and curiosity, scientists have tried to unravel the mysteries of space. Driven by the thirst for exploration, men have flown into the mysterious void. With the help of Mercury, Apollo and Gemini, not the Greek Gods but manned space missions, American astronauts have returned to their Earthly home with more questions than answers. Now, America wants to go even further and as a result, NASA is developing its newest manned space exploration program called Constellation.
NASA’s Constellation Program came into existence in 2005 after the ratification of the NASA Reauthorization Act. Under this program, the existing decades old Space Shuttle Program will be replaced and NASA and leading scientists will develop more advanced manned space vehicles that can explore the celestial bodies within our solar system and beyond. Plans are already in the works for a return to the Moon and a journey to Mars.
As part of the Constellation Program, NASA is developing new vehicle launch systems, crew capsules and landers. Hoping to make improvements on the already successful Shuttle Program, these new launch systems, crafts and components are symbolically named for Ares, the Greek God of War, Orion, the Hunter, and Altair, the alpha star in the Constellation of Aquila, the Eagle.
The launch or booster systems proposed under the Constellation program are aptly named Ares I and Area V. Each component of this two booster system has a specific function for the safe and successful launch of the Constellations manned crafts and landers.
The Ares I, nicknamed The Stick, has a single solid fuel booster rocket which is derived from the famous Space Shuttle. According to NASA, the Ares I launcher is fashioned after cutting-edge launch technologies which are improvements on the powerful Apollo and space shuttle propulsion elements. Ares I is best described as in-line, two-stage rocket with a multiple uses. Ares I’s primary use will be as launch mechanism for manned crafts, but it can also serve as a delivery system for resources and supplies the International Space Station, or could park payloads for orbital retrieval for crafts bound beyond the Earth’s orbit.
According to NASA, Ares V will be a vital part of the cost-effective space transportation infrastructure being developed by NASA’s Constellation Program. The Ares V, which consist of twin reusable rocket boosters, will serve as a cargo launch vehicle. 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 International Space Station and when coupled with the Ares I launcher will be able to transport cargo to the Moon.
In 2007, the press reported that NASA had considered a variation on the Ares I and Ares V designed, designated Ares IV. This Ares variant rocket booster system combine the Ares 5 main stage with the Ares I upper stage to permit an around-the-Moon-and-back flight and would be a means of testing the Orion crew explorer. Also, there as debate about whether the Ares I system would be replaced by a Delta variant booster.
In October 2009, the Ares launch systems underwent testing. Just before Halloween this year, the Area I-X test rocket lifted off from Kennedy Space Center. It’s six minute test launch was very successful and produced rocket acceleration to nearly 3 g’s and Mach 4.76. These numbers are just shy of hypersonic speed and will offer scientists a great deal of data necessary in improving the design and safety for America’s next generation of space exploration vehicles.
NASA’s plans and many people’s hopes are to see manned flights to the Moon and Mars. With this goal in mind, the next generation of manned crew exploration vehicles is being developed. And. It’s aptly named Orion. Another reusable component of the Constellation Program, this manned module will attach atop the Ares series launchers.
Orion, having a crew and propulsion modules, is being designed to be more spacious than the old Apollo crew explorer vehicle. Also flight technology giants, Lockheed Martin and Boeing are deeply involved in the construction of this component of the Constellation system. They are working on heat shield and flight technologies. The Orion crew explorer has passed design reviews and it’s believed that based on current specifications that the capsule will be able to support flights to the International Space Station and missions to the moon lasting up to 210 days.
The lunar lander component being developed for the Constellation Program is the Altair. Since lunar lander technology dates back to the late 1930s, the Altair is being created with the benefit of a great deal of scientific history and knowledge.
Once known primarily as the Lunar Surface Access Module (or LSAM), Altair, which is five times larger than its Apollo predecessor, will serve as the primary landing vehicle for the moon and be used basic moon landings and to carry necessary supplies for a long explorations of the moon surface.
From what NASA has determined, the Altair will be capable of landing up to four astronauts on the moon and returning them to the Orion crew craft. It will also provide life support and serve as a base for weeklong initial surface exploration missions.
While many may not readily know the details of NASA’s Constellation program, it has received a great deal of press. With current concerns on the federal debt and the cost of space programs, there is great debate about the projected goals and deadlines for this Program. While the Constellation mission schedule is uncertain, NASA Constellation Program team had previously hoped to launch its first manned flights to the International Space Station in 2014, the Moon in 2020 and Mars in 2030.
For more information and resources on this program, check out the following websites: