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Exploration Hardware

Descriptions of launch vehicles (rockets) and spacecraft being built to take astronauts back to the Moon and onward to Mars

Constellation Program

Constellation Program Overview (2006)
Briefing by John F. Connolly, Constellation Program Office, 22 pages.

Constellation: The Next Giant Leap Has Begun (2008)
NP-2008-11-010-JSC, 2 pages.

Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle

Concept image of the Ares 1 crew launch vehicle, left, during launch and the Ares V cargo launch vehicle on the launch pad.

Ares I was a two-stage rocket designed to carry four to six astronauts in the Orion crew vehicle into Earth orbit. The Orion crew vehicle would have then docked with an Earth Departure Stage carried on the Ares V Cargo Launch Vehicle (described below). The Ares I rocket was also designed to ferry supplies to Earth orbit for the International Space Station or transfer to the Moon. Additional details are available in a brief factsheet and on the Ares I website. The first test launch of the Ares I rocket occurred in October 2009 and was a great success. Nonetheless, the development of that rocket was canceled soon thereafter.  The capability to carry crew into space is currently being planned for a new rocket that will be called the Space Launch System (described below). For historical purposes, we provide NASA’s media charts with the Ares 1 test flight results and an executive overview of the Ares 1 flight data evaluation.

Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle

Orion oribits the moonThe Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle is similar to an Apollo design, but larger, so that it can support four astronauts for missions to the Moon. (It will also be able to accommodate six astronauts going to the International Space Station.) The Orion will have a launch abort system to carry the crew to safety in case of an emergency during launch.  It will also be used by astronauts for descent to the Earth’s surface when returning from the Moon. Like the Apollo capsule, the Orion will have a heat shield that protects the spacecraft during atmospheric re-entry. Like Apollo, it will also deploy parachutes when it reaches the lower atmosphere. Unlike Apollo, Orion will probably land within the continental United States, rather than at sea. Additional details are available in a brief factsheet, the Orion website, and the Orion MPCV website.

While the Constellation Program was canceled, the development of a crew vehicle continues as the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).  Descriptions of that development and mission concepts follow:

Orion: America’s Next Generation Spacecraft (2010)
NP-2010-10-025-JSC, 50 pages.

A lunar L2-Farside exploration and science mission concept with the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and a teleoperated lander/rover (2013)
Burns et al., 15 pages.

Orion Quick Facts (2011)
NASA Factsheet FS-2011-12-058-JSC, 2 pages.

Orion Quick Facts (2014)
NASA Factsheet FS-2014-08-004-JSC, 2 pages.

Orion Spacecraft Overview (2012)
NASA Factsheet FS-2012-03-012A-JSC, 2 pages.

Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle:  Desk Model (2014)
Paper cut-out model that can be assembled to produce the Orion vehicle.

Orion Launch Abort System (2014)
NASA Factsheet FS-2014-06-220-LaRC, 4 pages.

Orion (2015)
NASA Publication NP-2015-10-036-JSC, 2 pages.

The Orion spacecraft was launched for the first time on a Delta IV rocket in December 2014 in a mission called Exploration Flight Test One or EFT-1.  The vehicle orbited the Earth twice, was propelled to an altitude about 15 times higher than the International Space Station, and then re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere at 80% of the speed of a spacecraft returning from the Moon.  The test was designed to test the atmospheric re-entry and recovery capabilities of the spacecraft. The test was successful.

Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (2012)
NASA Factsheet FS-2012-05-018-JSC, 2 pages

Orion First Flight Test (2014)
NASA Factsheet FS-2014-08-005-JSC, 2 pages

Orion Exploration Flight Test 1 Sequence of Events (2014)
NASA Infographic, 1 page

Orion Flight Test Press Kit (2014)
NP-2014-11-020-JSC, 32 pages.

OrionAfter EFT-1, the next Orion launch is scheduled for 2017 or 2018.  Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) will stack Orion on the new Space Launch System (SLS) and propel Orion in an orbit around the Moon before returning to Earth.  The Orion will be attached to a service module provided by the European Space Agency (ESA) as shown to the right.  Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) is scheduled to occur in 2021 and, for the first time, will carry crew.  As with EM-1, EM-2 will orbit the Moon, carrying astronauts to within 100 km of the lunar surface.


Ares V Cargo Launch Vehicle

Ares V Cargo Launch Vehicle

Ares V was a two-stage rocket designed to be the heavy lifter of NASA’s new space transportation system. For lunar exploration activities, it would have carried the Earth Departure Stage (EDS), which would have contained a Lunar Surface Access Module (LSAM). Once in Earth orbit, the Earth Departure Stage would have docked with the Orion Crew Vehicle delivered by Ares I (described above). The EDS would have propelled the crew and their lunar lander to the Moon.  Once in lunar orbit, the EDS would have been jettisoned. Additional details are available in a brief factsheet and on the Ares V website.



Space Launch System (SLS) for Cargo and Crew

SLS LaunchAs the lunar exploration program evolved, modifications to the Ares V launch concept were made. The revised vehicle has the generic name Space Launch System or SLS. Unlike the Ares V, however, the SLS will also have the capacity to carry the Orion crew vehicle. The initial lift capacity is designed to be 70 t (Tonnes) and eventually evolve into a 130 t lift capacity. Additional details are available in a brief factsheet and a slightly longer factsheet.


SLSThe Orion vehicle will be stacked on the SLS in the Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center, as shown here in an artistic rendering.


Space Launch System (2012)
NASA Factsheet FS-2012-06-59-MSFC

Space Launch System (2014)
NASA Factsheet FS-2014-08-123-MSFC

Space Launch System Infographic (2014)

Space Launch System Core Stage (2014)
NASA Factsheet FS-2014-09-132-MSFC

Space Launch System At A Glance (2015)

Space Launch System RS-25 Core Stage Engines (2015)
NASA Factsheet FS-2015-11-105-MSFC

Space Launch System (2016)
NASA Factsheet FS-2016-02-04-MSFC

Space Launch System Solid Rocket Booster (2016)
NASA Factsheet FS-2016-06-87-MSFC

Space Launch System Core Stage (2016)
NASA Factsheet FS-2016-01-02-MSFC

Space Launch System Secondary Payloads (2016)
NASA Factsheet FS-2016-01-08-MSFC

SLS Structural Test Stands 4693 and 4697 (2016)
 NASA Factsheet FS-2016-04-40-MSFC

NASA’s Barge Pegasus – Transportation for the Space Launch System Core Stage (2017)
NASA Factsheet FS-2017-04-29-MSFC

Lunar Lander

Once in lunar orbit, the crew enters the Lunar Surface Access Module for their descent to the lunar surface. The LSAM undocks from Orion, which will remain in lunar orbit and retrieve the crew after they depart the lunar surface. Unlike Apollo’s orbiting Command Module, Orion will not have any crew during lunar surface operations. The LSAM will be called Altair. The system is currently in a preliminary design stage, so few additional details are currently available. The system, however, is being designed to carry a crew of four astronauts to the lunar surface and support them for weeklong lunar surface missions.

The development of the lunar lander was canceled, so NASA will not have the capability to land crew on the lunar surface.

Current concept of the lunar lander, Altair.

JSC2007-E-113280  --- NASA's Constellation Program began to develop new spacecraft that to return humans to the Moon and blaze a trail to Mars and beyond. This illustration represents the concept of the lunar lander, Altair.  The ascent module and airlock are adjacent to the astronaut on the main deck of the vehicle.  The lander can also be used to deliver cargo without crew, in which case the ascent module and airlock will not be present.  The development of this vehicle stopped when the Constellation Program was canceled.

Lunar Rovers

Several types of crew mobility systems are being investigated, including unpressurized systems that are essentially modern versions of the Apollo LRV and pressurized systems that are a completely new concept.  Both types of rover systems were tested at the Black Point Lava Flow lunar analogue terrain in northern Arizona in October 2008.  As details of these systems become available, they will be posted here.

Next Generation Rover for Lunar Exploration (2008)
D.A. Harrison, R. Ambrose, B. Bluethmann, and L. Junkin, JSC released document, IEEEAC paper #1196, 13 pages.

Lunar Electric Rover Concept (2008)
   NASA fact sheet, NF-2008-10-464-HQ, 4 pages.

Small Pressurized Rover Concept (2008)
NASA fact sheet, NF-2008-10-464-HQ, 4 pages.

Space Exploration Vehicle Concept (2011)
NASA fact sheet, FS-2011-08-045-JSC, 4 pages

Surface EVA Space Suits

Other essential hardware components will be space suits and gloves suitable for extra-vehicular activity (EVA) on planetary surfaces. During the Constellation Program, a series of tests using different types of suits in analog environments simulating different surface gravities were conducted. A representative subset of the NASA documents generated are presented here. One of the developments being explored was rear entry suits that could be used with suit ports on a small pressurized rover, like the Lunar Electric Rover described above.

Evaluation of the Rear Entry I-Suit during Desert RATS Testing (2006)
By D. Graziosi et al., SAE-TP-2006-2143, 7 pages.

Feasibility of Performing a Suited 10-km Ambulation on the Moon – Final Report of the EVA Walkback Test (EWT) (2009)
By J. R. Norcross et al., NASA-TP-2009-214796, 60 pages.

Metabolic Costs and Biomechanics of Level Ambulation in a Planetary Suit (2010)
By J. R. Norcross et al., NASA-TP-216115, 90 pages.

Metabolic Costs and Biomechanics of Inclined Ambulation and Exploration Tasks in a Planetary Suit (2010)
By J. R. Norcross et al., NASA-TP-2010-216125, 109 pages.

Effects of Changing Center of Gravity on Shirtsleeve Human Performance in Reduced Gravity (2010)
By J. R. Norcross et al., NASA-TM-2010-216127, 134 pages.

Final Report of the Integrated Parabolic Flight Test:  Effects of Varying Gravity, Center of Gravity, and Mass on the Movement Biomechanics and Operator Compensation of Ambulation and Exploration Tasks (2010)
By S. P. Chappell et al., NASA-TP-2010-216137, 126 pages.

Characterization of Partial-Gravity Analog Environments for Extravehicular Activity Suit Testing (2010)
By J. R. Norcross et al., NASA-TM-2010-216139, 60 pages.

CO2 Washout Testing of the REI and EM-ACES Space Suits (2012)
By K. C. Mitchell and J. Norcross, AIAA, 20 pages.

A Novel Method for Characterizing Spacesuit Mobility Through Metabolic Cost (2014)
By S. M. McFarland and J. R. Norcross, 2014-ICES-007, 11 pages.

Ares V Cargo launch Vehicle