NASA Sets Critical Launch of Untested Rocket
The space agency's next-generation rocket gets its first test launch Oct. 27 from Kennedy Space Center. The Ares I-X rocket is designed to launch the Orion spacecrafts into space for low-orbit flights to the International Space Station and, eventually, the moon as NASA phases out the space shuttle fleet by the end of next year.NASA plans a $445 million, 2-minute test launch of its experimental test booster rocket Ares I-X Oct. 27. Barring weather delays, which forecasters predict is likely, the Ares I-X is scheduled for an 8 a.m. EDT launch from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Pad 39B.
The Ares I-X is currently scheduled to become NASA's primary launch vehicle after the space shuttle is retired at the end of next year. The rocket is designed to launch the Orion spacecrafts into space for low-orbit flights to the ISS (International Space Station) and, eventually, the moon.
The Oct. 27 launch is scheduled to last approximately 2 minutes as it arches toward space but falls short of reaching orbit. The test launch involves an actual solid-rocket first stage with a mock second stage and dummy capsule to approximate the actual weight and size of an actual Ares launch.
NASA weather officer Kathy Winters said Oct. 26 there is a 60 percent chance of "no go" conditions on the morning of the launch. The weather chances improve for an Oct. 28 launch.
The flight test will provide NASA with an early opportunity to test and prove flight characteristics, hardware, facilities and ground operations associated with the Ares I. During the launch, more than 700 sensors will be on board, feeding back detailed measurements of the rocket's path and performance. Cameras on the ground and aboard planes monitoring the launch will provide NASA with a detailed trajectory analysis.
According to the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee appointed by President Obama to review the future plans for NASA, multiple questions surround the Ares program. "I think there is an argument that it was a sensible program to begin with," former Lockheed Martin executive and head of the review committee Norman Augustine said at a National Press Club event last week. "There is a real question whether it's a sensible program today."
They key question surrounding NASA's plans, the panel said, is money or, more specifically, the lack of it. NASA has already spent almost $6.9 billion on a plan centered on the Ares launch rocket to be back on the moon by 2020 to establish a lunar outpost for future space expeditions. NASA continues to spend $300 million a month on the program.
According to NASA's current plans, the International Space Station will be retired at the end of 2015, another conclusion that the Augustine panel disputed.
The committee also noted the NASA's current plan to decommission the space shuttle fleet at the end of next year was unrealistic and should be funded through at least 2011. The panel said that the projected flight rate through 2010 is nearly twice that of the actual flight rate since the Columbia disaster.
As with the history of NASA, it's only a matter of funding, and Augustine said the current program "is at a tipping point where either additional funds must be provided or the exploration program first instituted by President Kennedy must be abandoned at least for the time being."
The Ares I rocket under development, Augustine said, is a "very expensive vehicle" and not likely to fulfill its mission without "a major funding upgrade."