Altair will be NASA's new moon lander for astronauts. The lander will play an important part in the future of human space exploration. It is being built as a part of NASA's new human exploration program, Constellation. Altair will play an important role as astronauts travel to the moon and possibly to other destinations beyond. It is similar to the Lunar Module from the Apollo moon landings.
What Will Altair Do?
Altair will be able to take up to four astronauts to and from the surface of the moon. It will have room for oxygen and other supplies to support them there for a week at a time. A lunar outpost will be established to allow astronauts to stay on the moon for months at a time. Altair will have two parts. The bottom "descent stage" will have fuel and a powerful engine to land astronauts safely on the moon. The upper "ascent stage" will house the astronauts. It will separate from the bottom stage to return the crew to orbit at the end of a mission.
How Will Altair Take Astronauts to the Moon?
The Altair lander will be launched on a powerful Ares V ("air-eez five") rocket. No one will be aboard the Altair when it is launched. Once Altair is in Earth orbit, NASA will launch another rocket. The smaller Ares I rocket will launch the Orion (o-rie-un) spacecraft. The astronauts will ride into orbit aboard the Orion, which will then separate from the Ares I rocket. When Orion and Altair are both in orbit, they will dock together. Then, the upper stage of the Ares V will push the two vehicles out of Earth orbit and into orbit around the moon. The astronauts will land on the moon in Altair. Orion will orbit the moon with no one aboard. At the end of the mission, Altair will take off from the moon and dock with Orion. Orion will return the crew safely to Earth.
What Was the Lunar Module?
Altair will perform a similar function as an older vehicle, the Lunar Module. This spacecraft was used in the 1960s and 1970s during the Apollo program. Astronauts used the Lunar Module to land on the moon six times. Like Altair, the Lunar Module had an ascent stage and a descent stage. The Lunar Module was much smaller than Altair. Only two astronauts could fly in the Lunar Module. It could only support the crew on the moon for three days. The last Lunar Module landed on the moon in December 1972. Altair will take human beings to the surface of the moon for the first time since then.
When Will Altair Fly?
Altair is only one of several new vehicles NASA is building. The other new vehicles must be ready before Altair can fly to the moon. The Ares I rocket and the Orion capsule are scheduled to fly to the International Space Station for the first time by 2015. Test flights without a crew will begin before that. The Ares V will be the next vehicle to fly. The first mission to the moon, with all four vehicles working together, will take place by 2020.
More About Altair
Animation: To the Moon →
Exploring the Moon QuickTime Movie →
Exploring the Moon Windows Media Video →
What Is Ares?
What Is Orion?
David Hitt/NASA Educational Technology Services