NASA To Test New-Generation Space Rocket

Workers piece together the bottom of the Ares I i i

Workers piece together the capsule of the Ares I-X, the chamber where the astronauts would sit if it were a manned flight. The capsule will go on top of the rocket, giving it a height of 321 feet high — almost twice as tall as the space shuttle. hide caption

itoggle caption
Workers piece together the bottom of the Ares I

Workers piece together the capsule of the Ares I-X, the chamber where the astronauts would sit if it were a manned flight. The capsule will go on top of the rocket, giving it a height of 321 feet high — almost twice as tall as the space shuttle.

Workers move the capsule of the Ares I-X. i i

Workers transport the capsule of the Ares I-X. The first flight test will be unmanned and is scheduled for July. NASA Langley hide caption

itoggle caption NASA Langley
Workers move the capsule of the Ares I-X.

Workers transport the capsule of the Ares I-X. The first flight test will be unmanned and is scheduled for July.

NASA Langley

Back when he was a high school student, in April 1981, Robert Ess says he was absolutely transfixed by NASA's very first flight of its new space shuttle. "I was obsessed with it," he says.

The aging shuttle fleet is scheduled to be mothballed next year, after construction of the international space station is complete. Now Ess is obsessed with the first test flight of the shuttle's replacement. This time around, though, it's his job.

Ess works at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., where he's in charge of the Ares I-X mission — NASA's effort to test out a new rocket and space capsule design by blasting off an experimental version from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The unmanned test flight is scheduled for July.

"This is the first time that NASA's gone through and done an unmanned test flight in a long, long time, since the Apollo era," says Ess.

He explains that the first flight of the space shuttle wasn't unmanned — it had two people on board. "There really was no other way to do it," says Ess. "The space shuttle required a lot of human intervention to fly it, and we needed people inside to actually do it."

But people aren't expected to ride on the Ares I-X until around 2015. NASA's plan is that the rocket will ultimately carry up a crew capsule similar to the one that took astronauts up during the Apollo era.

The experimental version of the rocket, during its first test flight, will be capped by a carefully engineered dummy version of the crew capsule. The mock-up is exactly the right size, shape and weight, but "the only passengers are sensors," says Jonathan Cruz, a NASA engineer and project manager at Langley who helped design and build the rocket.

A military plane will take the capsule down to Florida on Thursday. There it will join other pieces of hardware, some real, some just fake stand-ins. If all goes well, Ess says, workers will stack them all up this spring to create a rocket that stands more than 320 feet tall.

"This vehicle is almost twice as tall as the space shuttle," says Ess, who adds that the rocket will be about 18 feet in diameter. "So it's very long and it's very thin."

During the first test flight, engineers will get real-world data on whether their flight control system can handle this long, thin design.

The test flight will cost about $350 million and will last only about two minutes. "The hardest part about a spaceflight is the first two minutes, going through the atmosphere," says Ess. "When you get high enough, then a lot of things get a lot easier."

The vehicle will go up only about 25 miles, and the simulated capsule isn't going into orbit. Instead, it will plunge into the ocean. "Two years of work and we give it to the fish," jokes Cruz.

The idea is that this test flight will be followed by several more. But with a new president and a new administration in Washington, it's not clear if that plan will change — or how many Americans would even notice if it did.

Ess admits that at first, even some members of his own extended family were perplexed to hear what he's been working on. When he tells people outside of NASA that the agency is planning to replace the shuttle with a new rocket, the main reaction he gets is surprise.

"It's hard to explain going from a space shuttle to this new vehicle," Ess says. "Our minds are so used to the space shuttle, for 20 years, and before that, Apollo."

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