- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 27, 2009

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla.| A moon rocket it’s not.

However, NASA’s Ares 1-X flight test rocket, set to launch Tuesday morning at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, will bring NASA one giant step closer to returning to the moon, to landing on an asteroid and to sending missions to Mars or other planets.

The launch has been delayed until 9:44 a.m. because of wind.

With a little more than two minutes of powered flight, space officials hope to gather enough information from the more than 700 sensors on the rocket to see if the design will work for the next generation of space flight. The feedback will include ground and air photos, external pressure and temperature readings, and sound and vibration data.

“It may seem like a short time, but in the rocket world, that’s a lot,” Bob Ess, mission manager of the Ares 1-X test rocket, said last week as the rocket rolled out to the pad. “The hardest part of the flight is the first two minutes.”

When the countdown clock reaches T-minus-0 around 8 a.m., four big bolts holding the rocket to the mobile launch platform are expected to explode, sending a message to the computer to start the launch process. At about 23 seconds, there should be 1.8 million pounds of thrust —the same weight as the rocket — allowing it to lift off the pad and arc to the east.

At the 39-second mark, if all goes to plan, the rocket will reach supersonic speeds, and at 2 minutes 23 seconds, it should be 120 miles out over the ocean.

It is at this point that Ares 1-X is expected to start to slow down, and the upper stage shouldwill separate and forge forward like a giant lawn dart going at a pretty good clip before it plunges into the ocean.

“This class of rockets is what we need to go to the moon,” Mr. Ess said.

Still, the wheel has not been totally reinvented. Mechanical parts recycled from the shuttle program and experience gained during the Apollo program are both factored into this design, the engineer said.

“It is a mixture of what we had available and new things we need,” he said. “A lot of it came from the shuttle.”

Historically, each new phase of space flight has come with a new “mission.”

With the Mercury and Gemini programs (1961-1966), the goal was to launch men into space for the first time. With Apollo (1968-1972), Americans landed on the moon. The program also taught us how to safely return to Earth.

Next came the shuttle program, with the first flight in 1981. It gave Americans the technology to build something in space — the International Space Station, with help from dozens of other nations. The shuttle also allowed us to send up heavy payloads and deploy spacecraft such as the Hubble Space Telescope, which opened up the universe.

NASA is looking for the Orion/Ares 1 program to, in effect, shrink the universe even more.

Craig Covault, editor-at-large with spaceflightnow.com, thinks the rocket may also land on an asteroid, where it can take samples and provide researchers with a better understanding of the makeup of the floating space rocks. The collected data could help scientists learn how to avert a catastrophe should an asteroid threaten Earth.

The placement of Ares 1-X on a modified launch pad last week marked the first time a shuttle and a rocket have sat on the Kennedy Space Center’s two launch pads simultaneously. Shuttle Atlantis is on Pad 39-A, waiting to lift off to the International Space Station on Nov. 12, bulging with crewmen and hardware that will be stored on the external part of the floating outpost.

The cornerstone of Pad 39-B: four heavy beams left over from the Apollo days. Most of the remaining structure is from the shuttle program, however. Three lightning rods and a grapple arm have been added for the Ares rocket test flight. Next year, the pad will be torn down, making way for a new pad from which Ares 1 is scheduled to be launched, said Billy Stover with the grounds systems team.

Tuesday’s historic event could mark the last view of such a two-pad sight, as the shuttle fleet is set to retire in 2010 and yieldyielding to its taller, sleeker replacement.

It has been 34 years since a rocket was launched from Pad 39-B, when the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project lifted off in July 1975. That rocket stood 224 feet high. The shuttle stands at about 184 feet. The Ares 1-X stands at 327 feet.

“It will stand taller than the launch pad,” Mr. Stover said. “It will be a majestic sight.”

The rocket

Four years in the making, Ares 1-X is not an exact replica of the rocket that is to take astronauts to the International Space Station and beyond to the moon. It is, however, the same mass and size of the vehicle that NASA plans to use eventually. It’s basically a single, four-stage rocket booster, like the shuttle solid rocket boosters, adapted to include a fifth segment.

The test flight will provide NASA with an early peek at the success or failure of hardware, facilities and ground operations. The test also will allow the space agency to gather critical data during the ascent of the five-stage integrated stack, which includes a simulated Ares vehicle and simulated Orion crew module as well as a launch-abort system.

Could it fail to lift off the pad?

“Maybe. We don’t know,” said John Cowart, Ares 1-X program deputy mission manager.

“Any human being knows you learn a whole lot more from things that don’t go right than things that do go right,” he said at Kennedy Space Center last week as the Ares 1-X rocket made its way to the pad.

Data collected will be used to verify the effectiveness of the rockets design and ensure that it is safe and stable in flight before astronauts begin traveling into orbit toward the end of the next decade.

“There are no people on board and no other prototypes,” Mr. Ess said. “So, the only failure is not flying it at all.”

The Ares 1-X test is part of a larger flight-test program that will include three tests of the Orion launch-abort system between 2009 and 2012, an Ares 1-Y test, and an integrated test of both the launch vehicle and the Orion 1 spacecraft in 2015.

The power behind the test vehicle is a single, four-segment reusable solid rocket booster modified to include a fifth inactive segment to simulate the Ares 1 five-segment booster. As plans go, Ares 1 is one of two rockets that NASA will use during launch when the next space flight is finalized.

The test will closely mirror flight conditions due to be experienced by the Orion/Ares 1 vehicle through Mach 4.7 — more than four times the speed of sound.

Approximately two minutes into flight, at about 130,000 feet, the launch vehicles first stage will separate from the upper stage. The maximum altitude of Ares 1-X will be about 150,000 feet.

The vehicle’s upper-stage simulator, the Orion crew module and launch-abort-system mock-up, should separate from the first stage and fall into the Atlantic Ocean.

The first-stage booster is expected to continue through a complete recovery sequence, releasing its Ares 1 prototype three-stage parachute-recovery system, falling safely into the ocean and floating until the hardware can be retrieved for inspection and analysis.

Data gathered from the first stage will provide vital information on hardware and software performance and also will be used to fine-tune ground operations.

The primary test objectives for the Ares 1-X flight include demonstrating the flight-control system performance during liftoff and gathering information to help engineers better understand how to control the Ares 1 systems roll torque during flight.

Roll torque is the force that causes the rocket to rotate. The rocket’s roll torques are generated by the manner in which the propellant burns, as well as by the vehicle aerodynamics.

In addition, engineers will analyze data to learn how effective the first stage separation motors perform and to better understand the flight environments the vehicle must withstand during its liftoff.

Looking ahead

After Ares 1-X, the second flight test, called Ares 1-Y, is scheduled for 2014. It will be the first flight of several new systems, including the five-segment reusable solid rocket booster, the flight-control system, a cryogenic upper stage, and near-final avionics system.

The third flight test, Orion 1, will test the complete Ares 1 vehicle, including the J-2X upper-stage engine, and will place an uncrewed Orion crew exploration vehicle into orbit. The first crewed missions to the International Space Station are planned for no later than 2015.

The Orion crew exploration vehicle is expected to take astronauts to the International Space Station and beyond. It will be able to rendezvous with the Altair lunar lander and Ares 5 Earth departure stage in low-Earth orbit or open space to carry crews to the moon and, one day, beyond. Orion is the planned Earth entry vehicle for lunar and Mars returns. The design will borrow its shape from the capsules of the past, but it takes advantage of 21st-century technology in computers, electronics, life-support, propulsion and heat-protection systems.

Orion is scheduled to carry out its first sortie to the moon by 2020.

The Ares launch vehicles, named for the Greek god associated with Mars, will carry into orbit astronauts, cargo and the components needed to go to the moon and to Mars. While Ares 1 will be an in-line, two-stage rocket topped by the Orion crew vehicle and its launch-abort system, the Ares 5 cargo-launch vehicle will be the heavy lifter of Americas next-generation space fleet. The two-stage, vertically stacked launch system will have a 206-ton capacity to low-Earth orbit and 78-ton capacity to lunar orbit.

The Altair lunar lander is expected to be capable of landing four astronauts on the moon, providing life-support and a base for weeklong initial surface-exploration missions, before returning the crew to the Orion spacecraft that will bring them home to Earth. Altair will launch aboard an Ares 5 rocket into low-Earth orbit, where it will rendezvous with the Orion crew vehicle in space.

The test flight Tuesday is the first step in determining where NASA will go next.

“We are confident that it will work,” Mr. Cowart said. “We did everything we could.”

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