New moon rocket set for test flight

15Jan

NASA’s sleek replacement for the soon-to-be-retired space shuttle fleet, the Ares 1 rocket, is to undergo its first test flight next week – ahead of a planned return to the Moon.

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The flight comes as the Obama administration considers whether to continue the rocket program, amid fears over its spiralling cost.

Besides positioning crews in Earth orbit for transport to the moon, Ares 1 is intended to serve as a ‘taxi’ to the International Space Station.

NASA spent nearly four years and $350 million on a predecessor rocket, known as Ares 1-X.

The 99-meter tall vehicle – the tallest rocket made since the 1960s-era Saturn spacecraft – was hauled out to a refurbished launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday, in preparation for an October 27 liftoff.

But even if the Ares 1 program is canceled, NASA says, the test flight is crucial.

40 per cent failure rate

“It’s been a long time since NASA built a new vehicle,” said mission manager Bob Ess.

“The whole purpose of this test is to get information so we understand and can correlate our computer models. From that, we learn how to use that data for the next launch vehicle.”

About 40 percent of new rockets fail on their debut launches, but NASA is so confident in its test vehicle that it cleared the space shuttle Atlantis to be on a second pad just 1.5 miles away during the Ares 1-X flight.

The shuttle is being prepared for a space station outfitting mission in November.

“My personal opinion is that if we really thought that 1-X was going to have a problem, then we’re not ready to go launch, even on a test flight,” said shuttle program manager John Shannon.

Shannon believes the 40 percent failure rate does not apply to Ares 1-X, since the rocket is based on the space shuttle solid-fuel boosters, which have been flying since 1981.

Rocket, parachute to be tested

Those boosters, however, have only flown in pairs and are part of a larger launch system that includes three liquid hydrogen-fueled engines mounted at the rear of the shuttle.

“The point of the flight is to verify that we can steer a rocket this tall, this shape, this weight,” said deputy mission manager Jon Cowart.

The test vehicle is outfitted with more than 700 sensors to relay data during the flight.

The booster will fire for 2.5 minutes, just like the shuttle boosters do, then parachute down into the Atlantic Ocean for recovery.

The flight also will test the new, larger parachutes designed for the Ares 1 rocket.

If Ares 1-X fails its debut, NASA says that shouldn’t affect debate about whether to continue the Ares 1 program.

Shuttle’s launch delayed

“You should never not test because you’re worried about the outcome,” said space station program manager Mike Suffredini.

“Personally I’m not aware of anybody that’s waiting for this test to decide the outcome of Ares 1.”

NASA decided to delay shuttle Atlantis’ launch by four days, to no earlier than November 16, in part so workers at the Kennedy Space Center could concentrate on the Ares 1-X flight.

“We’ve spent quite a few years where we’ve had vehicles that are planned, vehicles that are on PowerPoint, but we never end up bending metal. Well there it is,” said Atlantis astronaut Randy Bresnik, pointing to the Ares 1-X.

The Atlantis crew was at the Kennedy Space Center on Tuesday for training.

“We built this vehicle. It’s ready to fly and that is just a pretty awesome thing for us, the American people, to see,” Bresnik said.

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