I was doing some WIkipedia surfing today after seeking out information on the current Space Shuttle mission (STS-117) and I came across what will apparently be the program that succeeds the Space Shuttles when they are retired within the next decade. I wasn’t yet aware that NASA had “finalized” on the next generation systems, but it appears they may have done so. That program is called Project Constellation and it is designed to both meet our current needs for orbital research and International Space Station participation, as well as allow us to return to the Moon in the coming years. I was extremely interested to read all of the current information and plans for the future of our space travel.
There are four primary areas of this project: the crew module, launch vehicles, Earth departure stage system, and the lunar lander.
The crew module is called Orion and will function much like the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules of old. It will transport between four and six astronauts and will return to Earth via parachute, touching-down on land as opposed to the water recoveries of its predecessors.
The launch vehicles are currently referred to as Ares I and Ares V and each will serve different roles. Ares I will be the primary launch system for the Orion modules (manned missions) and utilizes solid rocket booster technology derived from the Space Shuttle SRB system. Ares V will be primarily used for launching cargo (unmanned missions) into space. This specialization of task will allow each to be much more versatile in serving the needs of the US space program. However, NASA is still considering using a single vehicle for all Constellation missions, which if chosen, would be the Ares IV.
The Earth departure stage is a specialized piece of the system which will be used to send mankind back to the moon. Instead of carrying all of the force needed to propel the capsule to the Moon in a single rocket, as in the Saturn V days, the Constellation project would instead carry out Moon landing missions in two stages. First, the module would launch from Earth using either the Ares I or Ares IV launch vehicle. Then, the Earth departure stage would be launched soon afterwards. The two would dock in orbit, and the Earth departure stage would provide the primary propulsion to get the module to escape velocity and send it to the Moon.
And finally, the lunar lander – officially called the Lunar Surface Access Module is probably my most favorite. This vehicle, which is nearly identical to the Lunar Module of the Apollo missions, will serve as the landing vehicle for the planned Moon missions. It will allow the astronauts to land on the Lunar surface, perform “moonwalks”, and then boost them back into orbit to return to the crew module and return safely to Earth. Marvelous technology.
After reading about these new systems I found myself more interested than ever in the space program. It will be several years before any of them are ready for testing and eventual use, but I can hardly wait!