The prototype of the next generation of NASA rockets-at least for the time being-successfully lifted off Oct. 28 from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Ares I-X test rocket flight lasted only 2 minutes, the time it took for the first-stage solid-fuel booster to burn out.
With a maximum altitude of approximately 28 miles, the 327-foot-long Ares I-X fell back to the Atlantic Ocean after the craft's parachutes were deployed. Carrying no people or cargo, the upper portions of the rocket, added only for ballast, also fell into the Atlantic, but NASA has no plans to recover those parts.
The recovered rocket motor and its maiden flight, though, will be extensively studied for flight characteristics using data from the more than 700 sensors mounted on the rocket. Cameras on the ground and aboard planes monitoring the launch will provide NASA with a detailed trajectory analysis. Data collected from the Ares I-X will help with the development of future missions and the design and modeling of future vehicles.
The Ares I-X is first new rocket to be launched by a delighted NASA in the nearly 30 years since the space shuttle Columbia made its maiden voyage in 1981. The Ares rocket, part of NASA's Constellation program, is intended to become NASA's primary launch vehicle, replacing the aging space shuttle fleet, which is currently set for mothballs at the end of 2010.
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.
However, the future direction of NASA space flights is very much in doubt as President Obama studies the results of the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee. The blue-ribbon panel raised significant questions about the Constellation program.
"I think there is an argument that it was a sensible program to begin with," Norman Augustine, a former Lockheed Martin executive and head of the review committee, said at a National Press Club event Oct. 22. "There is a real question whether it's a sensible program today."
The key issue, the panel said, is money or, more specifically, the lack of it. NASA has already spent almost $6.9 billion on a plan in which the Ares launch rocket will be back on the moon by 2020 to establish a lunar outpost for future space expeditions. NASA continues to spend $300 million per month on the program.
According to NASA's current plans, the ISS will be retired at the end of 2015, another decision that the Augustine panel disputed.
The committee also said NASA's current plan to decommission the space shuttle fleet at the end of 2010 was unrealistic and that the fleet should be funded through at least 2011. The panel noted 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 rocket under development, Augustine said, is a "very expensive vehicle" and not likely to fulfill its mission without a major funding upgrade.