NASA Success As Ares I-X Completes Maiden Flight

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The weather delayed launch of the NASA Ares I-X, the agency’s first new rocket in nearly 30 years, has successfully blasted off in Florida

NASA’s Ares I-X rocket has succesfully launched and completed its maiden test flight, despite weather delays, becoming the first new rocket to be launched by the space agency in nearly 30 years.

The prototype successfully lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Ares I-X test rocket flight lasted only two minutes, the time it took for the first-stage solid-fuel booster to burn out.

With a maximum altitude of approximately 28 miles, the 327-foot long Ares I-X fell back to the Atlantic Ocean after the craft’s parachutes were deployed. Carrying no people or cargo, the upper portions of the rocket, added only for ballast, also fell into the Atlantic, but NASA has no plans to recover those parts.

The recovered rocket motor and its maiden flight, though, will be extensively studied for flight characteristics by the more than 700 sensors mounted on the rocket. Cameras on the ground and aboard planes monitoring the launch will provide NASA with a detailed trajectory analysis. Data collected from Ares I-X will help with the development of future missions as well as the design and modelling of future vehicles.

The Ares rocket, part of NASA’s Constellation program, is designed to replace the ageing space shuttle fleet, which is currently set for mothballs at the end of next year.

The Ares I-X is currently scheduled to become NASA’s primary launch vehicle after the space shuttle is retired at the end of next year. The rocket is designed to launch the Orion spacecrafts into space for low-orbit flights to the ISS (International Space Station) and, eventually, the moon.

However, the future direction of NASA space flights is very much in doubt as President Obama studies the results of the US Human Space Flight Plans Committee. The blue ribbon panel raised significant questions about the Constellation program. “I think there is an argument that it was a sensible program to begin with,” former Lockheed Martin executive and head of the review committee Norman Augustine said at a National Press Club event last week. “There is a real question whether it’s a sensible program today.”

They key question surrounding NASA’s plans, the panel said, is money or, more specifically, the lack of it. NASA has already spent almost $6.9 billion (£4.23 billion) on a plan centred on the Ares launch rocket to be back on the moon by 2020 to establish a lunar outpost for future space expeditions. NASA continues to speed $300 million (£184 million) a month on the program.

According to NASA’s current plans, the International Space Station will be retired at the end of 2015, another conclusion that the Augustine panel disputed.

The committee also noted the NASA’s current plan to decommission the space shuttle fleet at the end of next year was unrealistic and should be funded through at least 2011. The panel said that the projected flight rate through 2010 is nearly twice that of the actual flight rate since the Columbia disaster.

As with the history of NASA, it’s only a matter of funding and Augustine said the current program “is at a tipping point where either additional funds must be provided or the exploration program first instituted by President Kennedy must be abandoned at least for the time being.”

The Ares I rocket under development, Augustine said, is a “very expensive vehicle” and not likely to fulfil its mission without a major funding upgrade.”


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