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  • Writer's pictureAeryn Avilla

"Apollo on Steroids": NASA's Constellation Program & Return to the Moon

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

NASA's Artemis Program was not the original second-coming of Apollo. In the early 2000s, President George W. Bush advocated the continuing of manned lunar exploration and called for the establishment of the Constellation Program. By 2004, it was decided that NASA's workhorse, the Space Shuttle, would be retired once the International Space Station was complete. Constellation, referred to as "Apollo on steroids" by NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin, was to begin carrying astronauts to the ISS in 2015 and land humans back on the moon by 2020. It was named after the first US Navy ship.

Insignias for NASA's Constellation program with Ares, Orion, and Altair

The Constellation, Ares, Orion, and Altair insignias (

Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles that would have been used for NASA's Constellation Program
Ares I and Ares V launch vehicles (NASA)

For a launch vehicle, the initial plan was to adapt already existing Delta IVs or Atlas Vs for heavier launches. Instead, it was deemed more favorable to exploit Space Shuttle technology and create a brand new rocket, the Ares. It was named after the Greek god of war whose Roman counterpart is Mars. The name followed NASA and pre-NASA traditions of christening rockets with Greco-Roman names, such as Saturn, Juno, Atlas, and Delta. It seemed only appropriate the rocket eventually taking humans to Mars would be named after the planet. There were two derivatives of Ares: Ares I was to carry the manned spacecraft while the much larger Ares V was to carry cargo and supplies as well as the lunar lander. Ares I, also referred to as "the stick," stood at 309 feet (94.2 meters) with a diameter of 12 feet (3.77 meters). It would be able to put 56,000 pounds (25,400 kg) of payload into low Earth orbit. The core stage of the Ares I would be a modified Space Shuttle solid rocket booster (SRB) while a J-2X engine would power the upper stage, which derived from the Space Shuttle external fuel tank (ET) and was based on the J-2 engine used on the S-IVB stage of the Saturn V moon rocket. The Ares V would have been 358 feet (109 meters) tall with a diameter of 28 feet (8.4 meters) and would have been able to put 287,000 pounds (130,000 kg) of payload into low Earth orbit. The core would be an elongated version of the ET with five RS-68 engines mounted on the base and two SRB's on its sides. The upper stage was also based on the ET and would have been powered by a J-2X engine as well. The first manned flight of Ares I was scheduled for sometime between 2017 and 2019.

Only one Ares rocket was ever produced. Most people at NASA thought the successful launch of the new rocket would secure funding for the development of more; Congress would have to grant them the budget they needed now that one of the rockets worked and that the program could realistically move forward. On October 28, 2009, the only flight of Constellation took off from Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center. It carried a prototype Orion crew vehicle, which we'll talk about below.

Launch of the Ares rocket from the Kennedy Space Center

The sole launch of the Ares rocket (NASA)

The only part of the program that wound up being kept was Orion, the crew vehicle. Initially dubbed the Crew Exploration Vehicle, Orion was a conical shaped capsule with a cylindrical service module like Apollo. On its own, it could spend up to six months docked to the ISS for crew return and emergency egress if necessary. It was designed to hold a crew of six but was reduced to four to save money and resources. The original six-manned vehicle would be developed later down the line. The service module would house the oxygen and water for astronauts and use deployable solar panels rather than fuel cells. Only a prototype of the capsule was ever built but it stuck around and was redeveloped for the Space Launch System and Commercial Crew Program in the 2010s. Since the new Orion is part of different programs, it will not be discussed in this post. The prototype launched on the Ares I mentioned above. The craft would have had a volume of 700 cubic feet (20 cubic meters).

mockup of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle

A mockup Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle at Port Canaveral, FL (NASA)

NASA's next-generation lunar lander was named Altair after the brightest star in the constellation Aquila. Aquila is the latin word for "eagle" and the name of the first manned spacecraft to land on the moon. Orion was the name of Apollo 16's lunar module as well. The name Altair won over the name Pegasus and it was originally known as the Lunar Surface Access Module, or LSAM. Like its predecessor, Altair would have been a two-stage vehicle consisting of a descent stage and an ascent stage. It also would have had the capability of docking with the unmanned Orion spacecraft orbiting overhead, just like the command/service module and lunar module of the Apollo program. However, Altair was much larger than the LM and would have been able to take four astronauts to the lunar surface rather than the traditional two. It was to be capable of operating for up to 210 days in space and on the lunar surface as well as fly uncrewed missions. This concept dates back to the LM Truck of the Apollo Applications Program. Unlike the Apollo LM, Altair would have had an airlock between the cabin and main hatch where astronauts could remove their spacesuits and potentially avoid tracking dust and rocks from the lunar surface into the cabin. This also allowed the vehicle to retain its internal pressure. A similar configuration was already being used on the Space Shuttle and ISS. More upgrades from the original Lunar Module included a camping-style toilet, a food warmer, a laser-guided distance measurement system, a glass cockpit, and a computer system identical to that on the Orion. The first manned lunar landing since the end of the Apollo Program was to occur no sooner than 2018.

comparison between Apollo and Altair lunar landers

A comparison between the Apollo and Altair lunar landers from a pdf

artist's rendition of Altair on the lunar surface

Artist's rendition of Altair on the lunar surface (

A fight to the moon during Constellation was not quite the same as it was during Apollo but was theorized at the dawn of the program. The Ares V would launch first, carrying Altair and cargo into orbit around the Earth. The Ares I carrying Orion and the crew would launch afterwards. Once in orbit, Orion would dock with Altair and the second stage of the Ares V would reignite and send the two spacecraft on the way to the moon. The process is known as Earth Orbit Rendezvous and was planned to be used during Apollo but was rejected in favor of the more efficient Lunar Orbit Rendezvous. When it was time for landing on the moon, the entire crew of four would transfer to Altair and begin their descent to the lunar surface. This was different from Apollo in the sense that no single person would remain in lunar orbit like the command module pilots of the early days. The early missions were scheduled to last a week on the surface of the moon, days longer than even the longest Apollo mission. The ascent of Altair and docking with Orion would have been the same as Apollo; the ascent stage carrying the astronauts off the surface of the moon would have docked with the remotely piloted Orion capsule in lunar orbit. Once it was time to come home, the Altair would be jettisoned and Orion would perform an trans-Earth insertion. Instead of a traditional splashdown landing, Orion was to land on the ground but if necessary, a water landing could have been used.

With every new presidential administration comes a new space policy. In May 2009, the Obama administration announced it would review the Constellation program and determine if it was really what was best for the country's space program. In October, the conclusion was made that Constellation's schedule was too unrealistic and it would be in the best interest of NASA for the program to be terminated. It came to an end in February 2010 and it was determined that the program had spend $11.9 billion ($3 billion over-budget) with the first flight a decade in the future. Instead came what is now known as the Commercial Crew Program. Commercial Crew is a partnership between NASA and commercial agencies to provide safe and reliable access to the International Space Station and low Earth orbit from America soil. The program's biggest achievement so far was the launch of SpaceX Demonstration Mission-2, which brought astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the ISS and was the first manned launch from the United States since the end of the Space Shuttle Program in July 2011.

SpaceX Demonstration Mission 2 launch in 2020

DM-2 launching from LC-39A on May 30, 2020 (NASA)

Orion was continued to be developed as a rescue craft for astronauts onboard the ISS in the event of an emergency. This never actually happened, though, and in 2013 it was incorporated into the Asteroid Redirect Mission, in which a probe would retrieve samples from the surface of an asteroid and bring it to lunar orbit where a crew on the Orion could study it. This was expected to happen in the early 2020s but the project was cancelled in 2017. Now Orion is being developed for the Artemis Program- the very program Constellation never had the chance to become. On December 5, 2014, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle had its first test flight aboard a Delta IV Heavy rocket. It successfully launched to and returned from the moon as the payload of Artemis 1 in November and December of 2022.

Was cancelling Constellation for Commercial Crew the right decision? Would NASA had made the 2018 lunar landing deadline or was it more wishful thinking? Let me know your thoughts in the comments and remember to like and share this post. Thanks for reading!



  • “Constellation Program: America's Spacecraft for a New Generation of Explorers.” Johnson Space Center.

  • Harland, David M. “Ares.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 5 Sept. 2008,

  • Harland, David M. “Constellation Program.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 5 Sept. 2008,

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