NASA's New Rocket Lifts Off On Short Test Flight

The Ares I-X test rocket lifts off successfully i i

The Ares I-X test rocket lifts off successfully from Pad 39B on Wednesday at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. John Raoux/AP hide caption

itoggle caption John Raoux/AP
The Ares I-X test rocket lifts off successfully

The Ares I-X test rocket lifts off successfully from Pad 39B on Wednesday at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

John Raoux/AP

NASA's newest rocket blasted off on a brief test flight Wednesday, taking the first step in a back-to-the-moon program that could be shelved by the White House.

The 327-foot Ares I-X rocket resembled a giant white pencil as it shot into the sky, delayed for a day by poor weather.

No one was onboard during the flight, and the rocket did not put anything in orbit. But the rocket was covered with more than 700 sensors, and during its two-minute powered flight, NASA officials hoped to learn how the rocket responds to the stress of liftoff. The data will provide a reality check for computer modeling used in the rocket design process.

The flight cost $445 million. It was the first time in nearly 30 years that a new rocket took off from Kennedy Space Center. Columbia made the maiden voyage for the shuttle fleet back in 1981.

Liftoff, in fact, occurred 48 years and one day after the first launch of a Saturn rocket, a precursor to what carried astronauts to the moon during the Apollo program. The Saturn V moon rockets were the tallest ever built, an impressive 363 feet.

Wednesday's flight came 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 perhaps 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. "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."

Wednesday's launch, years in the making, attracted a large crowd.

The prototype moon rocket took off from a former shuttle launch pad at 11:30 a.m., three-and-a-half hours late because of bad weather. Launch controllers had to retest the rocket systems after more than 150 lightning strikes were reported around the pad overnight. Then they had to wait out interfering clouds.

The maximum altitude of the rocket was not immediately known but was expected to be 28 miles. Parachutes popped open to drop the booster into the Atlantic, where recovery ships waited.

The upper portion of the rocket — all fake parts — fell uncontrolled into the ocean. Those pieces were never meant to be retrieved.

Wednesday's launch represented the first step in NASA's effort to return astronauts to the moon. The White House, though, 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, said 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?" Crawley said.

He said 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. Crawley said that 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 — because the space station currently has funding only through 2015. If funding for the station was extended by another five years, that would eat up part of NASA's budget and probably cause more delays for Ares I.

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

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

From NPR and wire service reports

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