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NASA dims lights for Constellation program (photos)

The Ares rocket, Orion spacecraft, and Altair lunar lander didn't have the right stuff after all. President Obama's new budget proposal puts an end to years of work and spending.

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Jon Skillings
A born browser of dictionaries and a lifelong New Englander, Jon Skillings is an editorial director at CNET. He honed his language skills as a US Army linguist (Polish and German) before diving into editing for tech publications -- including at PC Week and the IDG News Service -- back when the web was just getting under way, and even a little before. For CNET, he's written on topics from GPS to 5G, James Bond, lasers, brass instruments and music streaming services.
Jon Skillings
NASAOrionUnveiling.jpg
1 of 13 NASA/Bill Ingalls

Orion in 2006

Not so long ago, NASA was gearing up for a next phase of space exploration that would eventually bring astronauts back to the moon, and beyond that to Mars. In this photo from August 2006, officials of the space agency could smile as they showed off a scale model of the Orion spacecraft, announcing that it would be built by aerospace contractor Lockheed Martin. An element of the Constellation program, Orion was intended to carry four crew members on lunar missions and six on junkets to and from the International Space Station.

On Monday, NASA's hopes and plans for Constellation came crashing down as President Obama unveiled his budget proposal for the 2011 fiscal year, canceling the program even as it raised overall funding for NASA.

NASAAltairMoon.jpg
2 of 13 NASA

Altair lunar lander

Along with Orion, the Constellation program included the Altair lunar lander (seen here in an artist's rendering) and the Ares family of rockets.

"The program was planning to use an approach similar to Apollo to return astronauts to the moon some 50 years after that program's triumphs," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement Monday (PDF). "The Augustine Commission observed that this path was not sustainable, and the president agrees. They found (with) Constellation, key milestones were slipping and that the program would not get us back to the moon in any reasonable time or within any affordable cost."

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3 of 13 NASA/MSFC

Ares I and Ares V rockets

Two rockets were envisioned for Constellation: the Ares I (left), which would lift the Orion crew vehicle into space, and the Ares V, which would haul large-scale hardware.

"The Augustine Commission estimated that the heavy lift rocket for getting to the moon would not be available until 2028 or 2030, and they even found 'there are insufficient funds to develop the lunar lander and lunar surface systems until well into the 2030s, if ever,'" Bolden said. "And as we focused so much of our effort and funding on just getting to the moon, we were neglecting investments in the key technologies that would be required to go beyond."

NASAAresLaunchPad2.jpg
4 of 13 NASA/Kim Shiflett

Ares I-X rocket on launch pad

NASA did have some tangible achievements with parts of Constellation. Last October, the Ares I-X rocket was trundled out to Launch Complex 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida...
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5 of 13 NASA/Sandra Joseph and Kevin O'Connel

Ares I-X lifts off

...and followed through with a 6-minute suborbital test flight (including 2 minutes of powered flight) that carried the booster stage to a splashdown about 150 miles away. Some 700 sensors on the 327-foot-tall, 1.8-million-pound rocket provided a wealth of tracking and performance data as the Ares I-X reached nearly 3Gs and Mach 4.76 at the behest of 2.6 million pounds of thrust.

NASA offered this additional description: "Four first-stage, solid-fuel booster segments are derived from the Space Shuttle Program. A simulated fifth booster segment contains Atlas-V-based avionics, and the rocket's roll control system comes from the Peacekeeper missile. The launch abort system, simulated crew and service modules, upper stage, and various connecting structures all are original."

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6 of 13 NASA/Cory Huston

Monitoring a rocket firing test

In September 2009, NASA staff members keep track of data during the first power-up of the Ares I-X rocket.
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7 of 13 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Ares I rocket at ATK facility

Last summer, CNET's Daniel Terdiman got a close look at a fully assembled Ares rocket at a Promontory, Utah, facility of ATK, the primary rocket contractor for the Constellation program. The assemblage, said Kevin Rees, director of test services for ATK, contained "the world's biggest solid rocket motor."

See Terdiman's full story, and lots more photos, at "Piecing together NASA's Ares I rocket."

NASAOrionDocking.jpg
8 of 13 NASA/MSFC

Orion docks with Altair, Ares

Had NASA been able to follow through with Constellation development to the point of actual missions into space, this is a view that space station residents might have been able to enjoy: the Ares V departure stage carrying the Altair lander and docking with the Orion crew vehicle.
NASAAltairOrion.jpg
9 of 13 NASA

Altair flies with Orion

And in this artist's rendering, Orion flies with Altair attached. ("Please note," NASA wrote, "that this artwork is not precise.")
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10 of 13 John Frassanito and Associates

Altair on the moon

In December 2007, NASA had hoped to get a crew into space aboard Orion by 2015, headed to the International Space Station, and to conduct a manned moon landing by 2020.
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11 of 13 NASA/SSC

Orion full-scale model

NASA did get as far as building a full-scale mockup of Orion, seen here in August 2009 at the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.
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12 of 13 NASA

Test version of Orion

This is a "ground test article" version of Orion at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in July 2009. It was designed to be a "production pathfinder" to validate production processes and tools for the actual flight vehicle. Ground tests were to include static vibration, acoustics, and water landing loads.
NASAAresAssembly.jpg
13 of 13 NASA/Jack Pfaller

Assembling Ares for launch

Ahead of the October 2009 flight test of the Ares I-X rocket, NASA gathered the various systems at the Kennedy Space Center's vehicle assembly building. At the time of the launch, NASA could boast of quick work in bringing the test rocket to the launch pad only four years or so after it was a concept. "This is unprecedented in NASA history, for a rocket of this size," said Jon Cowart, a deputy mission managers overseeing the assembly and launch Ares I-X. "It's incredible."

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