NASA To Launch World's Tallest Rocket

Artist concept of the Ares I-X rocket. i i

hide captionArtist concept of the Ares I-X rocket.

Courtesy of NASA
Artist concept of the Ares I-X rocket.

Artist concept of the Ares I-X rocket.

Courtesy of NASA

Tuesday morning, if all goes as planned, NASA will launch the tallest rocket in the world. It's an experimental version of the rocket that NASA is designing to replace the aging space shuttles, and the Ares I-X test flight will be the first time in decades that NASA has tried out a new vehicle planned for astronauts.

But the $445 million test flight is coming just days after a panel of experts convened by the White House reported that the Ares I rocket program can't really do the job it was intended to do, and maybe should be scrapped.

Mission managers say that even if the Ares I program gets the ax, the test launch will be important for advancing rocket science.

"This rocket wasn't even conceived of four years ago," says NASA's Jon Cowart, deputy mission manager for Ares I-X. "And so, it's just an awesome experience to be here when you watch a rocket like this. It's just an incredible thing to be a part of."

Ready To Go

The Ares I-X rocket, currently waiting on a launchpad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is nearly twice as tall as the space shuttle. The tall, skinny white rocket is 327 feet high.

NASA hopes that in the future, astronauts will ride in a small capsule perched on top of an Ares I. The Ares I-X is a prototype version, and some of its parts — including the crew capsule — are just dummy versions of the right shape and weight.

"The vehicle is ready to go," says Bob Ess, Ares I-X mission manager. "We're really excited about the vehicle, really proud that we're getting so close to be ready to fly."

But Ess cautioned that "there's a lot of unknowns, which is the reason we're doing the test. So, no guarantees for tomorrow."

The test launch is scheduled for 8 a.m. EDT on Tuesday — there is a four-hour potential launch window, and if the weather doesn't cooperate, they can try again on Wednesday.

No one will be onboard during the flight, and the rocket will not put anything in orbit. But the rocket is covered with over 700 sensors, and during its two-minute powered flight, Cowart says his team will learn a lot about how this rocket responds to the stress of liftoff. The data will provide a reality check for computer modeling used in the rocket design process.

"We like to use what's become a rather trite phrase, that 'We're rocket scientists,' but it is what we're doing," says Cowart. "This is really rocket science. And it's not something you do on a lark. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it."

Questioning The Future Of Ares

Still, things might be about to get a lot harder for the Ares I program. The White House recently asked a panel of 10 independent experts to review all of NASA's future plans for human spaceflight. Its final report, issued last week, raised doubts about the Ares I.

MIT astronautics professor Edward Crawley, one of the panel members, says they had no doubt that given enough time and money, NASA could successfully develop and fly Ares I. "The question is, should NASA build the Ares I," says Crawley.

He says the rocket design made sense when it was first planned, "but times have changed. The budgetary environment has become much tighter, and the understanding of the costs and schedule to develop the Ares I has matured."

NASA's aging space shuttles are supposed to be retired next year. But Crawley says, under the best of circumstances, Ares I won't be ready until 2017. That's really too late for its main mission, bringing astronauts up to the space station, since the space station currently has funding only through 2015. Even if funding for the station got extended by another five years, that would eat up part of NASA's budget and probably cause more delays for Ares I.

"And really, the question before NASA and as framed by the committee," says Crawley, "is, 'Are there alternatives that would deliver a capability earlier and at a lower cost, but with the same criteria for safety?' "

For example, private companies are developing rockets that could bring crews and cargo up into orbit close to Earth. The panel suggested that NASA might privatize the "trucking" business of getting stuff into orbit, so that the space agency could focus its efforts on developing bigger, more ambitious rockets that could go to the moon or beyond.

Cowart says the recent review, and the questions swirling about Ares I, aren't discouraging his team before their first big flight test. "I would say probably it has the opposite effect," Cowart says, explaining that if their rocket is not put in what they consider to be the best light, "it actually inspires us to make this rocket do better."

And he says no matter what happens, the test flight data will be extremely useful for rocket science and designers of future space vehicles. "To borrow a quote from one of my favorite rocket designers, Wernher von Braun," Cowart says, " 'One good test is worth a thousand expert opinions.' "

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