Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] is opening its Altair lunar lander program office in Houston.

The company is vying for a NASA contract to design and build the human lander that would work with the Orion space capsule that NASA earlier chose Lockheed to design and build.

That Orion capsule, or crew exploration vehicle, looks something like the former Apollo spacecraft, and will replace the space shuttle as the vehicle transporting U.S. astronauts into orbit. Orion will ride atop the Ares I rocket, assuming NASA doesn’t abandon Ares I in favor of a military-style rocket.

Lockheed submitted its proposal to NASA last month for the Altair Conceptual Design Contract, and the agency is expected to award several contracts for the first phase of the program later this spring.

The Altair lunar lander is a key element of NASA’s Constellation Program, which encompasses the spacecraft, launch vehicles, infrastructure and support systems to return human explorers to the moon and establish a lunar outpost for much longer duration missions than Apollo achieved.

Experience, capabilities and technologies developed and utilized for Altair missions also will enable human exploration to extend beyond the moon to other destinations in the solar system.

"Locating key expertise and program management support in Houston adjacent to … Johnson Space Center, where the Constellation Program and Altair Project offices are located, allows us to provide responsive and comprehensive support to NASA on the Altair Conceptual Design Contract," said Brian Duffy, Lockheed vice president and Altair program manager.

Duffy, a four-time space shuttle astronaut and commander of two of the missions, executed four rendezvous maneuvers with other spacecraft and docked with the International Space Station.

He also participated in developing and testing displays, flight crew procedures, and computer software to be used on shuttle flights.

Altair, standing over two stories high, will be able to transport and house as many as four astronauts onto the lunar surface and is comprised of two primary elements.

The descent stage will house the majority of the fuel, power supplies, and breathing oxygen for the crew. The ascent stage will house the astronauts, life-support equipment, and fuel for the ascent stage motor and steering rockets.

Once on the surface, the crew will be able to stay on the moon for up to six months at a time, with the Orion crew exploration vehicle orbiting above and awaiting the crew’s return for the trip back to Earth. The first crewed flight is scheduled for 2020.