.The Orbiter is the aging part of the Shuttle system. The rest of the launch vehicle is very capable. And we need a heavy-lift vehicle if we’re going to ever go beyond low Earth orbit. So that’s why my band of brothers, my band of consultants, has been looking at using a Shuttle-derived launch vehicle and an eight-person crew module. We call it Project Aquila..

Buzz Aldrin – CNN Interview with Paula Zahn, August 26, 2003.

The workhorse for the Apollo lunar missions was the Saturn V rocket – a “Heavy lift” rocket capable of launching up to 260,000 lbs of payload into Earth orbit, and 104,000 lbs all the way into lunar orbit. The Saturn V sent America’s astronauts to the Moon nine times, including six missions that landed on the Moon, from 1968 to 1972. After being used for the launch of America’s first space station Skylab in 1973, the Saturn V heavy lift was retired.

In 1972, NASA shifted gears to develop America’s next space transportation system – the Space Shuttle program first launched in 1981. With a payload of only 55,000 lbs and a destination altitude of about 215 miles above the Earth, within the area referred to as “low-Earth orbit,” a heavy lift rocket launcher was deemed not necessary. The Shuttle, being partially reusable, was intended to be the workhorse of America’s space program, reducing costs and making flight into space routine. These goals proved elusive.

Fast forward to 2002 when Buzz and his team at Starcraft Boosters, Inc. responded to NASA’s need for a next-generation launch system that would once more send astronauts beyond low-Earth obit. A firm believer in an evolving human spaceflight capability beyond low-Earth orbit, Buzz guided his team in a new design for a heavy lift launch vehicle – along with a new orbiter designed to expand crew and cargo capacity, and serve as an escape pod if necessary.

The result was Project Aquila – the Latin word for “eagle” – named after the Aquila constellation on the east side of the Milky Way that resembles an eagle.

Aquila’s launch vehicle design was to be derived from the Shuttle system, but evolve into a heavy lift system by placing engines at the bottom of the Shuttle’s external tank. Aquila would carry more than twice the mass of the current Shuttle payload capacity. It would have the capability to accomplish large space missions (like building a space station or space hotel) at a lower cost and risk, since fewer flights and less assembly in space would be required. And it could be made ready for flight by the year 2009.

Aquila’s upper stage was designed to replace NASA’s Shuttle Orbiter space craft with a less complex side-mounted multi-use pod featuring its own rocket stage, modular components, and flexible configurations of crew and/or cargo. The crew module was to be named Altair – after the largest star in the Aquila constellation. The proposed pod options or blocks included:

  • Block 1 – An 8-person Altair crew module carried in the pod with wings folded up, plus a 62,000 lbs cargo capacity to low-Earth orbit.
  • Block 2 – A 6-person Altair crew module carried in the pod, usable for crew escape at any stage in the launch, plus a 3000 lbs payload for missions into lunar space.
  • Block 3 – A cargo only configuration capable of delivering 89,000 lbs up to the International Space Station.

As the space tourism industry evolves, Aquila could also be used for vertically launched adventure travel into Earth orbit, to visit space hotels and for lunar circumnavigation trips. Ultimately, a future growth version of Aquila, called Aquila II, would result in a super Saturn V class of payload capabilities.