JACKI LYDEN, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Jacki Lyden. The space shuttle has been flying for more than a quarter of a century. Its boxy, white shape, and bright orange fuel tank are instantly recognizable. But NASA is scheduled to retire its aging fleet of shuttles next year, and the space agency wants to replace them with something totally different - a small crew capsule that will perch on the top of a long, skinny rocket. Think of it as the supermodel version of the space shuttle. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce spoke with some NASA workers who are getting ready for its first test flight.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bob Ess is standing in an aircraft hangar at NASA's Langley Research Center in Virginia. He says back when the space shuttle made its first flight, he was a high school student.
Mr. ROBERT ESS (Manager, Ares I-X Mission, Langley Research Center, NASA): The shuttle flew in April of '81, and I was watching it. I was obsessed with it for months and months before that.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now the shuttle's replacement is about to make its first test flight. It's just months away. And again, Bob Ess is obsessed. But this time, it's his job to be. He's the manager of a NASA mission called Ares I-X. Ares I is the name of the rocket that will carry a crew capsule into space. The X stands for experimental.
Mr. ESS: 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.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says, when the space shuttle blasted off for the first time, there were two people inside.
Mr. ESS: So that was unprecedented for something like that. But there really was no other way to do it. The space shuttle required a lot of human intervention to fly it, and we needed people inside to actually do it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This time, the crew capsule will be empty during the first takeoff. The capsule is really just a carefully engineered dummy. It's here in the hangar along with Jonathan Cruz who worked to build it.
Mr. JONATHAN CRUZ (Project Manager and Engineer, Langley Research Center, NASA): There is no crew intended to fly, and this is a pure experimental craft that its only passenger are sensors.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He points to the sensors. They're all over the outside of the white, bell-shaped capsule. At the moment, they're covered up with bits of bright blue tape.
But when this thing's on top of the rocket, somebody's going to pull off the blue tape?
Mr. CRUZ: Absolutely.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hopefully, hopefully someone will remember.
Mr. CRUZ: That is on a checklist - remove prior to flight.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: All around us, workers are getting this capsule ready to be shipped down to Kennedy Space Center in a big military plane. There it will join other pieces of hardware - some real, some just fake stand-ins. Bob Ess says if all goes well, this spring workers will stack them all up to create a rocket that stands over 320 feet tall.
Mr. ESS: This vehicle is almost twice as tall as the space shuttle.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But it's not fat like the shuttle with its fuel tank and booster rockets. The widest part of Ares-I is only about 18 feet in diameter.
Mr. ESS: So it's very long and it's very thin. In fact it's the longest, thinnest rocket that's ever been flown. And it's part of our test is to see if a very long, skinny and therefore somewhat flexible vehicle, can our flight control system and our control nozzle really control it the way that we think we can?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The test is scheduled for July. The flight will only last about two minutes, and the capsule isn't going to go into orbit. Jonathan Cruz says it will plunge down into the ocean and won't be recovered.
Mr. CRUZ: Two years of work and we give it to the fish.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: What the engineers will get is real world data. Bob Ess says even though the test is short, it will show how the overall design responds to the stress of takeoff.
Mr. ESS: The hardest part of space flight is the first two minutes, going through the atmosphere. When it gets high enough, then a lot of things get a lot easier.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The idea is that this test flight will be followed by several more, with the first astronauts flying in their new vehicle around 2015. 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. Bob Ess says even some members of his own family were perplexed at first to hear what he's been working on.
Mr. ESS: It's hard to explain going from a space shuttle to this new vehicle. Our minds are so used to the space shuttle for 20 years and before that Apollo.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So when he tells people that NASA is working to replace the shuttle with a new rocket, he says their main reaction is surprise. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.