NASA Experimental Rocket Launch A Success

The Ares I-X test rocket takes off. (wide) i i

The Ares I-X test rocket takes off Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. John Raoux/AP hide caption

itoggle caption John Raoux/AP
The Ares I-X test rocket takes off. (wide)

The Ares I-X test rocket takes off Wednesday from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

John Raoux/AP

An experimental NASA rocket zoomed up through a break in the clouds over Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday morning, as officials tested a rocket design that they hope will someday replace the aging space shuttles.

The skinny, 327-foot-tall Ares I-X rocket blasted off at 11:30 a.m. EDT and streaked up through the sky for about two minutes of powered flight before its two sections separated and headed down toward the Atlantic Ocean.

This experimental version of NASA's planned Ares I rocket was loaded with more than 700 sensors to reveal how its tall, slender design reacted to the stresses of liftoff. The lower stage of the rocket will be recovered by a ship, and NASA officials will be able to retrieve flight data off an onboard recorder.

A cone of moisture surrounds the Ares I-Xrocket. i i

A cone of moisture surrounds the Ares I-X rocket Wednesday during liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. Chris O'Meara/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Chris O'Meara/AP
A cone of moisture surrounds the Ares I-Xrocket.

A cone of moisture surrounds the Ares I-X rocket Wednesday during liftoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

Chris O'Meara/AP

The Future of Human Spaceflight

The unmanned test flight comes just as the White House is reviewing all of NASA's future plans for human spaceflight. The current plan calls for the space shuttles to be retired next year, and for American astronauts to ride to the International Space Station on Russian rockets until NASA's Ares I rocket and its Orion capsule are ready.

NASA aims to have manned flights of Ares I by 2015. But an independent panel convened by the Obama administration recently said the Ares I probably wouldn't be ready until 2017.

In a report issued last week, the panel suggested possibly canceling the Ares I program and relying instead on commercial launch vehicles to transport crew and cargo up into near-Earth orbit, so that NASA can focus on building bigger, more ambitious rockets to go to the moon or beyond.

A Job Well Done

Despite the uncertainty, the launch team and NASA officials were exultant after watching the huge test rocket make a fiery streak across the sky.

"Think about what we just did, our first flight test, and the only thing we were waiting on was weather," Ares I-X launch director Ed Mango told his team after the launch. "That says you all did frickin' fantastic," he added, to laughter and claps from the crowd.

Kennedy Space Center director and former astronaut Bob Cabana said it was one of the most beautiful rocket launches he had ever seen. "That was just unbelievable — it was spectacular," Cabana said. "I got tears in my eyes."

Officials say no matter what direction the administration decides to take NASA, the $445 million flight test of Ares I-X will still be valuable for rocket science, by giving engineers real-world data that they can use to improve computer models of how rocket designs will behave during launch.

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