• Education Resources
  • Computational Tools
  • CLSE

Exploration Hardware

Descriptions of launch vehicles (rockets) and spacecraft being built to take astronauts to the Moon and onward to Mars. We are currently operating in the Artemis program, but the development of Artemis systems often has its roots in the Constellation Program. Thus, information from both the Constellation and Artemis programs are collated here.

Human Exploration Programs

Details of the 1960s-1970s Apollo program can be found in the LSE section Apollo-era Documents.

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.

What is Artemis? (2019)
NASA NP-2019-07-2748-HQ, 2 pages.

NASA’s Plan for Sustained Lunar Exploration and Development (2020)
Report for the National Space Council, 13 pages.

Artemis Plan: NASA’s Lunar Exploration Program Overview (2020)
NASA NP-2020-05-2853-HQ, 74 pages.

Artemis III Science Definition Team Report (2020)
NASA-SP-20205009602, 188 pages.

Artemis I Reference Guide (2022)
NASA-NP-2022-03-3045-HQ, 90 pages.

Artemis I Press Kit (2022)
Version 1.0, for August 29, 2022 launch date, 41 pages.

Artemis I Orbital Diagram (2022)

Artemis II Orbital Diagram (2021)

Artemis II Orbital Diagram (2023)

Artemis III Orbital Diagram (2022)

Artemis IV Orbital Diagram (2022)

Why NRHO: The Artemis Orbit (2023)

Why Artemis will Focus on the Lunar South Pole (2023)

Gateway: The Cislunar Springboard for International and Sustainable Human Deep Space Exploration (2023)

Mars-Forward Capabilities to be Tested at the Moon (2023)

Mars Transportation (2023)

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 moon

The 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.

Launching Orion into Space (2014)
NG-2014-10-001-JSC, 2 pages.

Orion and Space Radiation (2014)
NP-2014-03-001-JSC, 2 pages.

Orion and Space Launch System Spinoffs (2014)
NP-2014-11-1288-HQ, 2 pages.

Ascent Abort-2 Flight Test (2018)
NASA Factsheet, 4 pages.

Orion Recovery Operations (2019)
NASA Factsheet FS-2019-08-2306-KSC, 2 pages.

Orion Exploration Mission-1 patch

After EFT-1, the next Orion launch was initially scheduled for 2017, then 2019, as Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1). The plan was to stack Orion on the new Space Launch System (SLS) and propel Orion in an orbit around the Moon before returning to Earth. The Orion was to be attached to an Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), which is the SLS upper stage, and a Service Module, the latter provided by the European Space Agency (ESA). The ICPS was to be used to depart Earth orbit and transition to an orbit that carried the vehicle to the Moon. Orion was to then separate from the ICPS, which would complete its mission by deploying several small satellites, called CubeSats, for scientific measurements. Orion was to then be propelled by an engine on ESA’s Service Module, orbit the Moon for several days, before returning to Earth and splashing down in the Pacific Ocean. The flight of Orion to the Moon will carry the vehicle beyond NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay System satellites, at which point Orion will communicate with Houston via the Deep Space Network. An Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2) was scheduled to occur in 2023 (slipping from 2021) and, for the first time, carry crew. As with EM-1, EM-2 was scheduled to orbit the Moon, carrying astronauts to within 100 km of the lunar surface.

Those Exploration Missions were rescheduled as part of a new Artemis program of human exploration. EM-1 became Artemis I. The Artemis I mission is scheduled for launch in August or September of 2022. Artemis II, which will carry crew around the Moon, will occur approximately 2 years later. Artemis III will then land two astronauts in the lunar south polar region in 2025.

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 Launch
SLS Launch

As 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.


The 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

Space Launch System Lift Capabilities and Configurations Infographic (undated)

Space Launch System Evolution from Blocks 1 to 2 for Crew and Cargo (undated)

SLS Mobile Launcher (2018)
NASA Factsheet FS-2018-03-271-KSC

SLS Mobile Launcher Tower Umbilicals (2018)
NASA Factsheet FS-2018-02-250-KSC

Space Launch System (2018)
NASA Factsheet FS-2018-08-084-MSFC

SLS Solid Rocket Boosters Infographic (2020)

SLS Artemis Engine System Graphic (2022)

Lunar Lander

In the Constellation architecture, once crew reached lunar orbit, they would enter the Lunar Surface Access Module for their descent to the lunar surface. The LSAM would have undocked from Orion, which was to remain in lunar orbit and retrieve the crew after they departed the lunar surface. Unlike Apollo’s orbiting Command Module, Orion would not have any crew during lunar surface operations. The LSAM was to be called Altair. The system was in a preliminary design stage, but was that activity was cancelled with the Constellation program.

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.

With the development of Artemis, a different approach to the development of human landing systems emerged. NASA requested proposals for human landing systems that met the agency’s requirements. SpaceX was awarded a contract for the Artemis III landing of astronauts at the lunar south pole using the Starship vehicle (see concept art). In the Artemis III architecture, SpaceX will launch propellant into Earth orbit (see CONOPS illustration). SpaceX will then launch the Human Landing System (HLS) Starship into Earth orbit. The HLS will rendezvous with the propellant and, once tanks are filled, be directed into a transfer orbit to the Moon. Astronauts will then be launched in NASA’s SLS and fly to lunar orbit. Once there, crew will rendezvous with the HLS and transfer to the HLS for descent to the lunar surface. The astronauts will spend 6.5 days on the lunar surface before returning to lunar orbit. Once in lunar orbit, the HLS rendezvous with the Orion vehicle, which will return the astronauts to Earth.

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.

Quick Attach Docking Interface for Lunar Electric Rover (2009)
J. M. Schuler et al., NASA-KSC-2009-302, 10 pages.

Human Habitation in a Lunar Electric Rover During a 14-Day Field Trial (2010)
H. Litaker Jr. et al., NASA-JSC-CN-20045, 5 pages.

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

Experimental Evaluation of the Scale Model Method to Simulate Lunar Vehicle Dynamics (2016)
K. Johnson et al., NASA-GRC-E-DAA-TN32423, 17 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.

For the Artemis program, a new spacesuit is being constructed for lunar surface operations. That suit is called the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU). The suit allows easier motion. The initial xEMU will also allow astronauts to spend up to 2 hours in permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) on the Moon that may be repositories for volatile materials, like water.

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.

Life Sciences Implications of Lunar Surface Operations (2010)
S. P. Chappell et al., NASA-TM-2010-216138, 32 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.

Integrated Extravehicular Activity Human Research Plan (2016)
A. F. J. Abercromby et al., ICES-2016-370, 19 pages.

Evidence Report: Risk of Injury and Compromised Performance Due to EVA Operations (2017)
S. P. Chappell et al., NASA-JSC-CN-39092, 71 pages.

Integrated Extravehicular Activity Human Research Plan (2017)
A. F. J. Abercromby, 21 pages.

NASA Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) LSS/SSA Data Book (2017)
Rev V, JSC-E-DAA-TN55224, 588 pages.

EVA Office Extravehicular Activity (EVA) Airlocks and Alternative Ingress/Egress Methods Document (2018)
N. Mary, NASA-JSC-EVA-EXP-0031, 143 pages.

NASA’s Advanced Extra-vehicular Activity Space Suit Pressure Garment 2018 Status and Development Plan (2018)
A. Ross et al., ICES-2018-273, 13 pages.

Performance of the Z-2 Space Suit in a Simulated Microgravity Environment (2018)
I. Meginnis et al., ICES-2018-71, 20 pages.

Development and Evaluation of the Active Response Gravity Offload System as a Lunar and Martian EVA Simulation Environment (2020)
O. S. Bekdash et al., ICES-2020-175, 12 pages.

NASA’s Development of Next-Generation Spacesuits (2021)
By NASA Office of Inspector General, Report No. IG-21-025, 41 pages.

Get the solar system in your inbox.

Sign up for LPI's email newsletters