For the first time in nearly 30 years, a brand new NASA rocket has rolled out to a seaside launching pad in Florida to prepare for a launch test debut.
The rocket is Ares I-X — a suborbital prototype for the Ares I rocket NASA plans to use to launch its shuttle successor, the Orion spacecraft. Currently the world's tallest booster, the Ares I-X rolled out to the launch pad early Tuesday and is slated to blast off Oct. 27 at 8 a.m. EDT (1200 GMT) on a short demonstration flight.
"The Ares I-X is going to fly straight up and straight out," said NASA commentator George Diller as the 327-foot (100-meter) tall rocket began moving toward Launch Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. "During that time we'll be testing the stage separation to determine how well the first stage separation motors perform, as well as the performance of the booster itself, namely the parachutes and other apparatus that will deploy."
The $445 million rocket's rollout comes on the eve of a final report from an independent committee appointed by the White House to review NASA's plans for future human spaceflight.
During a series of summer meetings, the committee found that NASA does not have the budget to fund its vision of replacing the shuttle fleet by 2015 and returning astronauts to the moon by 2020. Led by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norman Augustine, the committee is due to release a report Thursday that details several options for President Barack Obama's consideration, some of which do not include the Ares I rocket at all.
Historic, spectacular rollout
The committee's upcoming report aside, the rollout of Ares I-X provided a spectacular sight, one which NASA broadcast live on NASA TV in its entirety. Reporters and photographers, along with NASA personnel, could be seen watching the giant rocket slowly make the 4.2-mile (6.7-km) launch pad trek.
Not since the April 1981 test flight of NASA's space shuttle Columbia has NASA test launched a new rocket designed to carry astronauts into space. Like Columbia and its external tank, the towering Ares I-X rocket is painted in all white and gleamed in the glare of blazing xenon spotlights as it emerged from the 52-story Vehicle Assembly Building. But unlike that first shuttle flight, Ares I-X will be unmanned.
"Ares I-X is rolling!" Diller said as NASA's massive Apollo-era crawler-transporter vehicle began hauling the new rocket to Pad 39B at 1:39 a.m. EDT (0539 GMT).
The trip took about seven hours and started over an hour late due to slight delays in preparation work, but the process appeared to go smoothly in the end.
"This has been a little bit slow-going, but primarily because this is the first time we've ever done this," Diller said.
The skyscraping Ares I-X rocket stands 143 feet (44 meters) taller than NASA's space shuttles. It is the tallest rocket to emerge from the Vehicle Assembly Building since the Saturn 1B rocket used to launch the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission between NASA and the former Soviet Union in 1975.
The rocket weighs 1.8 million pounds (816,466 kg), and NASA engineers expected its tip to sway up to 1 foot (0.3 meters) during the rollout. Altogether, the Ares I-X rocket, its Mobile Launch Platform and the crawler-transporter itself weigh about 16 million pounds (7.2 million kg).
Major launch test ahead
The Ares I-X test rocket has three chances to launch next week, one a day each between Oct. 27 and Oct. 29. NASA initially planned to only have two days to try and fly Ares I-X, but on Monday the agency pushed the launch target for the space shuttle Atlantis to Nov. 16 — a four-day delay — in order to allow the third opportunity.
NASA's Ares I rocket is a two-stage launcher made up of a giant five-segment solid rocket booster first stage (similar to the four-segment versions used on the space shuttle) and a liquid-fueled second stage. Completing the rocket is the Orion crew capsule and a launch abort system tower at the top. The rocket is tall and slender, and is thicker at the top than on the bottom.
The Ares I-X is not a full Ares I rocket. Its first stage is a four-segment solid rocket booster — repurposed from the shuttle fleet's inventory — capped with a dummy fifth segment. The thicker second stage, Orion crew capsule and launch abort system are also all mock-ups built to simulate the size and mass of the real thing.
During next week's launch test, the flight is expected to last just over two minutes and reach an altitude of about 28 miles (45 km) as the Ares I-X rocket launches eastward over the Atlantic Ocean. First stage separation will come about two minutes, 33 seconds into the flight, with the first stage parachuting down to the ocean to be recovered. The dummy second stage and Orion mockups will crash into the ocean and not be recovered, mission managers have said.
The Ares I-X flight is the first of three planned test flights for the Ares I rocket. The next launch, dubbed Ares I-Y, is slated to launch in 2014 and include a real second stage.
The third mission, called Orion I, is planned to launch an actual Orion spacecraft into orbit, but on an unmanned test flight, Diller said.