When Atlantis returns in July of 2011 she will bring the shuttle program, a 30 year era of development and productivity in space, to a close. The shuttle program has launched more satellites, carried more people, and moved more hardware into space than any other US space program.
But the shuttles, costing about $1.7 billion each, are not cheap devices to build, maintain, or launch. They’ve been extremely effective at moving large amounts of hardware into space, but NASA envisions a new mission for the space transfer fleet.
Meet Constellation, NASA’s new program to carry humans and robots far beyond Earth’s orbit. The Constellation Program features a variety of new spacecraft, each for a different purpose.
The Constellation Program is an all-encompassing system designed to provide for the affordable and reliable transfer of people and equipment from Earth to the ISS, the moon, and beyond. The system is comprised of a new launch platform – a series of rockets called Ares- , a lunar lander called Altair, and an exploration vehicle called Orion.
The Orion exploration vehicle looks very similar to the three-man Apollo capsules of the 1970’s. But these rounded pyramid spaceships are far more versatile than that decade’s capsules. For one thing, it can carry a crew of four comfortably for up to 21 days. And it’s designed to do more than just orbit the moon.
Like the Apollo program of old, the Orion system rides out of the atmosphere on top of a rocket. Once there, however, it can be docked up to a variety of different vehicles that can transport the crew inside to the moon, and, already in the planning stages, Mars.
Where the space shuttles are all-in-one spacecraft, these different vehicles can be affordably launched into orbit separately to await the arrival of an Orion crew months, even years later. A system like this allows mission planners much more flexibility in the execution of space exploration programs, which translates into dynamic cost savings.
Robots in Space
The space shuttle Discovery carried Robonaut 2, a humanoid robot, into space on this last mission. He’s now being tested aboard the International Space Station. His job is to test the feasibility of using humanoid robots as assistants to human astronauts in space.
Although Robonaut is just an upper torso at this time, a lower body is under development. Robonaut , unlike bulky industrial robots, will be able to fit inside the Orion’s cabin.
The day may very well come when the Orion spacecraft, mated up with an Altair Lunar Lander and a transfer vehicle, journeys to the moon with two humans and two Robonauts in the cabin. Or perhaps just four Robonauts launched on their way to work with humans already on the moon.
A New Vision
The days of the space plane have passed. Flight-based reentry has been tested, and works, but is terribly expensive and complex, and, as the Challenger and Columbia disasters taught us, fraught with danger.
Until another technology emerges, Orion will return its crew to Earth in the same manner as the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules of old – backwards, heat-shield first, with parachutes to slow reentry. It’s not elegant and dramatic like the shuttle landings, but it’s tried-and-true.
The focus of the Constellation Program is on transporting the men and equipment into space for the purpose of exploring of our solar system. It is a multinational, multi-component system that should serve well into the 21st century.
Read more about the Constellation Program at NASA’s Constellation Program website.