NASA plans to go back to the moon! Altair will be the new moon lander for astronauts. Altair is like the Lunar Module used for Apollo moon landings years ago.
What Will Altair Do?
Altair will be able to take four astronauts to the surface of the moon. It will have room for air and other supplies. It will help astronauts stay there for a week. NASA plans to build a lunar outpost. When that is built, astronauts can stay on the moon for months. Altair will have two parts. The bottom part will have fuel and an engine to land on the moon. The upper part is where the astronauts will live. This part will also take the crew back into space to return to Earth when the mission is finished.
How Will Altair Take Astronauts to the Moon?
The Altair lander will be launched on a giant Ares V ("air-eez five") rocket. No one will be on the Altair when it is launched. Then, 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. Orion 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. They will go to the moon and orbit it. Orion and Altair will undock and the astronauts will land on the moon in Altair. Orion will wait in orbit with no one aboard. Altair will take off from the moon and dock with Orion. At the end of the mission, Orion will return the crew safely to Earth.
What Was the Lunar Module?
Altair will be like 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 two stages. The Lunar Module was much smaller than Altair. Only two astronauts could fly in the Lunar Module. The crew could only live 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 many new vehicles NASA is building. Altair can't fly to the moon until the other new vehicles are ready. The Ares I rocket will be used to go to the International Space Station by 2015. The Orion capsule will be used then, too. Test flights without crews will begin before that. The Ares V rocket will be the next vehicle to fly. The first mission to the moon is planned to 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