RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Right now all eyes at NASA are trained on a launch pad at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A new test rocket is set to launch on its first flight, but weather is an issue and NASA managers have postponed the launch till later this morning.
NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce is covering the story and she joins us now. Good morning.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Tell us, to begin with, why this launch is important.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, this is the first test flight of the rocket that NASA is designing to replace the aging space shuttles. So what they're going to test is called the Ares I-X, the X stands for experimental. And it's a tall, 327-foot rocket. It's very tall and skinny, which is very different from the space shuttle. And the idea is that someday astronauts would ride in a capsule on the top, much like they did in the days of the Apollo program, and they would go up into orbit and this capsule would eventually link up with something else and maybe head for the moon.
And so this rocket is sort of part of what NASA is calling its constellation program, which is its efforts to get back to moon missions.
MONTAGNE: And the role of this test flight within the entire NASA?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, the test flight won't have any astronauts on board. It's an unmanned test flight. It's basically just to gather information about the rocket design and how it, you know, sort of does during liftoff, when there's all the stresses on the vehicle.
Basically, the crew capsule is just a mock-up. It's not the real thing. There's other parts that are just stand-ins too. But the idea is that it's gonna go up for about 28 miles, for about two minutes of powered flight, and it won't go into orbit. But there are all kinds of censors all over the rocket, and NASA is going to get a lot of data to see whether this rocket design is looking good.
MONTAGNE: And the space shuttles are expected to be retired next year. When would this new rocket be ready?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, NASA has been saying it's aiming for 2015, but some experts think it'll be more like 2017 or even later.
MONTAGNE: And American astronauts, how would they get into space in the meantime?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, the current plan is that we would be buying rides from Russia. Basically, American astronauts would ride in Russian capsules on Russian rockets. But the White House is considering the future of NASA and what to do. And it just got a report at last week from an expert panel it put together to consider all this. And this panel was actually fairly critical of the new rocket that's about to be tested. They said it might have been a wise plan a few years ago but that times have changed. And they said, you know, there's been budget cuts, there have been technological challenges that have all delayed this rocket. And so now they're saying maybe Ares I, you know, should be cancelled in favor of something else.
MONTAGNE: Like what would that something else be?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, they specifically mentioned private companies. There are private companies that are building rockets and capsules that could potentially take crew and cargo up into Earth orbit. And the panel said that if we allowed private companies to do that, then NASA could focus on building bigger, more ambitious rockets that could go to the moon and beyond.
MONTAGNE: Well, then are there alternatives to the Ares I-X rocket, those bigger ones?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Yeah. This is actually one of two rockets that NASA is developing. They're also building a larger rocket that's sort of on a similar design, but it would take heavier cargo up as well.
MONTAGNE: Nell, thanks very much.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce on NASA's planned launch today of a new test rocket. That launch has been delayed by weather at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. NASA managers are hoping for a liftoff within the hour. And we'll bring you more news as we learn it.