Question: As you probably know, several of us from Pacific Science Center, went to a NASA Forum at the Museum of Flight on January 25, 2008. NASA officials talked about a very complicated plan for a manned-Mars mission sometime this century, using a permanent Moon base as a starting point. Have you heard anything more about this possible reality?
The Constellation Program
The program you’re asking about is called “Constellation” and the first goal is to put people back on the Moon by 2020. Indeed, the program is up and running and NASA is making progress as each day passes. The Constellation Program has three basic components. Let me look into the status of each.
The Orion Crew Vehicle:
Status: design and component mock-up
Currently NASA has a mock-up of the Launch Abort System being driven across the country to the White Sands test range. (Trust me, you want the launch abort system to work.). Actually, by the time you read this the LAS has probably already arrive at the facility for testing. NASA hopes to have finished testing and begin building by 2012.
The Ares Launch Vehicle:
Status: components built, in preliminary testing
As you can see from the picture here, the Ares 1 rocket fires just fine. Now the question becomes – is that firing under control? Is it exactly the thrust needed? Do the scientists and engineers have the control over it that they expected to have? NASA hopes to have finished testing and begin building by 2012.
The Altair Lunar Lander:
Status: design, rocket testing.
The Lunar Lander itself is mostly still on the drawing board, but NASA staff are testing out various rockets and modeling various designs.