May 2019: Our scheduled return to the moon. There's plenty of laboring to be done on the Constellation Program before then, but the foundation is set. Here's how you—as an astronaut—would experience the mission:
Ares V Unmanned Cargo Rocket, EDS and Altair: The Gear Goes Up First
First it's the turn of the giant unmanned Ares V, carrying most of the real hardware you'll need on your journey. You and the rest of your astronaut compadres walk around the pad hours ahead of the launch—a metaphorical kicking of Ares' tires. Man, that thing seems hellish big.
Six hours later you're watching the countdown from VIP bleachers, and all 360 feet of rocket looks even more ominous. You all have on the "spaceman" face for the news cameras—confident, professional, all smiles. But when the five RS68 engines at the bottom of that rocket light up, followed by the two solid boosters, and that thundering noise finally reaches you, you're all suddenly kids on Christmas morning. Literally tons of fuel is burned every second, pushing a blunt needle skywards. It makes a heck of a show, and the noise of Ares V racing to space barely covers your whoops. Quickly you remember to use your crappy little digicam to snap the rocket's launch—there'll be thousands of official photos, but these will be yours.
Minutes later, you and the crew watch monitors in a nearby viewing room as the rocket makes it to orbit. Everyone's quiet, as they see the final stage, the Earth Departure Stage, fire its engines. The huge aerodynamic nose cone isn't needed any more and it pops off, revealing the lunar lander, an Altair. It's bolted at the top of the EDS, and looks more like a sci-fi fantasy than a real moon ship. Eventually, the instruments aboard the EDS all phone home to NASA with a digital OK, and the spacecraft pauses. It's waiting for you to join it out in space.
Ares I Crew Rocket, Orion Capsule: Time For You To Hit the Road
Twelve hours later, it's your turn to go up. All six of you are suited-up and sardined into an Orion capsule, 280 feet above the launch pad at the top of an Ares I rocket. While ticking off mission control's checklist, you think about the imminent journey. If Ares V is a giant space truck, the smaller Ares I you're strapped to is a crazy-ass custom-engined dragster—a dragster without a parachute brake, that is.
Eventually the time ticks down to T-Zero: The booster's solid fuel is ignited, and acceleration slams you and the crew in the back as "The Stick" races skywards. Holy crap, it's a wild ride: Pure rocket chemistry, raw chest-squeezing thrust from a giant Roman candle. The booster burns out in just 150 seconds, and detaches with a wrenching noise and a jolt—the external camera view you see of it tumbling away behind you is awesome. Then comes thrust from the liquid-fuel J2X engine—the first taste of Apollo-era tech, updated for the 21st century. The ride is now smoother, a little less like Aliens, a little more like 2001.
Rendezvous in Orbit: The Delicate Mating Dance of Spaceships
Switches are thrown and your ship's computer matches the Orion's orbit with the waiting Earth Departure Stage with Altair moon ship. Your skin feels alternately hot and cold, which has nothing to do with the air conditioning or the sunlight stabbing through the capsule window—just excitement. And finally there it is: The EDS, clear in the sunlight, spinning gently as the laser-guided rendezvous process with your capsule begins. At one point the Altair's given name is visible, hand painted in copperplate by some techie a thousand miles away: Rama. That had given you a shiver. You hear the clunk of mating adapters as Orion joins the EDS, greeted by cheers from Houston over the radio and a bunch of zero-g hand shaking with the rest of the crew.
Moon Shot: Leaving Earth's Orbit
"The Stick" has become "The Stack," and all is ready to leave earth orbit, and head out toward the moon. The mood is calm: No one aboard will let themselves believe it yet. But twelve hours later, when long checklists are complete, and the magic words, "Go for lunar orbit burn," come over the radio, emotion arrives with a rush. "Want a drink?" comes a request from behind you, and the accompanying wink made you curious. Sipping at the plastic squeeze bag you suddenly weren't surprised to taste a tiny stab of whiskey: Totally against the rules, but frankly the people who made those rules weren't riding a flimsy steel, titanium and composite can mated to a couple dozen tons of explosive gases in outer space.
The EDS's engine fires up again, this time pushing the Altair and the Orion forward and you—tucked inside—into a head-back, eyeballs-out position as you fly, backwards as it were, to your date with history.
When its fuel is gone, the EDS is ejected, leaving you racing to the moon for three days in the combined Altair/Orion moon ship at 25,000 miles per hour. You're just desperate to take a walk.
The Lunar Landing: Pulling a Neil Armstrong, 50 Years Later
40m... 35m... The counter in the middle of the Altair's hi-res display screen has simulated LEDs, like an old alarm clock, and it makes you smile. Those numbers are a serious wake up call though: They're exactly how far above the dusty surface of the moon this little spacecraft hovers. Altair—wasn't that the name of an old computer? Probably had more CPU power than the original Eagle did, you think. Armstrong landed that old thing on a wing and a prayer. Now it's your turn, and your mind's free to wander because computers are largely in control, steering, firing the RL10 rockets and monitoring radar. It's just a question of checking in case you need to intervene. Your hand hovers over that big red "LANDING ABORT" button, which you hope never to push.
25m... 20m... A lateral shove from a thruster shakes you and your fellow moonwalkers behind you, a minor course correction. 15m... "Kicking up a little dust," you say over the radio, and you know the guys behind are grinning. "Aye captain!" quips back the mission's chief engineer.
10m... 5m... And here came history. Dust really does stream up in the bright sunlight past the windows as the final meters pass. At least you know the surface you'd be arriving on—the Apollo guys had no idea if they were landing on concrete or cake icing.
0.8m... 0.6m... 0.4m... The Altair's descent rocket shuts down so very suddenly that the silence is a shock. With less of a jolt than you get when riding on a roller coaster, it's touchdown. Velcroed to the control panel, the tiny nodding dog trinket—a present from some young fan—had been wobbling broken-necked in zero-gravity, but now it begins to behave properly, and nods its approval of the landing.
You're on the moon.