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This NASA Spacecraft Could Have Put Americans on the Moon in 2018, But Congress Stepped In
In one of our recent articles about NASA's current Artemis Moon mission program, we showed you how it was essentially birthed from the rib of the defunct Constellation program intended to serve pretty much the same function. Before getting the ax from President Obama and Congress.

This NASA Spacecraft Could Have Put Americans on the Moon in 2018, But Congress Stepped In

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In the end, the Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle was the only asset of the Constellation program to survive this government-mandated cancelation. But of all the potentially fascinating tech thrown by the wayside after Constellation, the most noteworthy has to be the Altair spacecraft. The manned lunar lander that could've been the first of its kind to touch down on the moon's surface since 1972.

The spacecraft that did that all those years ago served as the spiritual genesis of what would eventually become the Altair concept. Built by Grumman Aerospace of Long Island, New York, the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM, better known as the Apollo Lunar Module) set the standards that Altair was designed to copy and outright exceed.

Starting life as the Lunar Surface Access Module, or LSAM, the spacecraft was renamed Altair after the 12th brightest star in the Northern hemisphere's night sky in 2007. Throughout every virtual nut and bolt of the Altair spacecraft, visual and technological cues make it nearly indistinguishable from the old Grumman LEM to the untrained eye.

Both the LEM and Altair were designed to be direct to lunar surface transport spacecraft with the ability to remain on the surface for long enough periods to conduct scientific experiments, gather geological data, and then return astronauts to their awaiting command or service module for a return trip to Earth.

Furthermore, both Altair and the LEM consisted of two stages. Of course, one of these two existed in computer animations only, lest we forget. Altair would have consisted of a dedicated decent stage with only enough fuel to get down to the lunar surface. The ascent stage, powered by its bespoke fuel supply, was to separate from the bottom stage in the same manner as the Grumman LEM, using its own engines.

It's perfectly understandable to assume the LEM and Altair were built on identical principles for an ostensibly identical mission directive. But peeling back the curtain reveals at least a couple of crucial differences. Firstly, the Grumman LEM was only ever required to bring a maximum of two astronauts down the lunar surface.

On the other hand, Altair was meant to be capable of bringing down an entire four-man space crew. Meanwhile, the Orion Command Module would have been left to computers and mission control to wait in orbit high above. The Grumman LEM was also notoriously uncomfortable. With no efficient means of heating food integrated into the spacecraft, the menu on the lunar surface would've made most middle school cafeteria lunches look downright delicious.

Furthermore, the LEM needed to remain completely depressurized for the duration of an EVA. Essentially guaranteeing any unfortunate space suit malfunction or puncture meant the astronaut involved was pretty much toast if the cabin couldn't be pressurized in time.

Altair was to fix this by keeping a portion of its interior at one Earth atmosphere regardless of mission status. Meaning any such incident could have had a relatively quick and easy solution without scrapping the entire EVA mission. Of course, the Grumman LEM was a cacophony of switches, dials, and buttons sprawled through the entire cabin.

Altair was to do away with this by incorporating a full-length glass cockpit complete with the same computer management system derived from, of all things, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. At least on the surface, it appeared like NASA genuinely had a worthy successor to the Grumman LEM on their hands.

Sadly, this was until Congress got their hands on a dossier in 2011 from the Review of United States Human Space Flight Plans Committee, or simply the Augustine Committee. This document revealed that project Constellation had little to no hope of success without massive spikes in funding. Funds that a largely politically split Congress was unwilling to provide.

Just like that, the most promising Lunar Lander spacecraft in almost 50 years was all but dead in the water. Soon afterward, NASA began work on a new crewed interplanetary exploration program. Complete with an entirely new launch platform called the Space Launch System (SLS), under the Artemis program. As for a direct replacement for Altair? Well, as of yet, there doesn't seem to be one. That is unless you count SpaceX's hardware.

Though some may find it a dubious assumption to believe such a system would be ready in time for the Artemis III mission in 2025 or 2026. Especially considering Elon Musk's track record of overpromising and underdelivering. Boeing has also tried on two separate occasions to have their Human Landing System (HLS) integrated into the Artemis program. These bids were both promptly rejected.


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