NASA's next-generation Ares I manned-mission rocket may be a death trap, at least for the first minute after liftoff, an Air Force study concludes.
If the Ares I rocket malfunctioned, the report says, the crew capsule's escape system would not be able to blast itself and the astronauts inside it to safety, according to the Orlando Sentinel
Instead, a huge cone of red-hot rocket fuel would be spread over nearly three miles and the crew capsule's parachutes would be incinerated, causing it to fall thousands of feet to the Atlantic Ocean.
"The capsule will not survive an abort [in the first minute] ... as the capsule is engulfed until water-impact by solid propellant fragments radiating heat from 4,000 [degrees] F toward the nylon parachute material (with a melt-temperature of [about] 400F)," said the 25-page report, entitled "Capsule ~100% Fratricide Environments" and issued on July 10.
The 45th Space Wing, located at Patrick Air Force Base near Cape Canaveral in Florida, supervises all unmanned launches by the military and NASA at the Cape.
The report analyzed photographs and data from the 1998 detonation of an unmanned Titan IV rocket, which was similar in size and composition to the Ares I solid-fuel rocket.
The explosion sprayed a gigantic anemone-shaped cloud of fiery debris in the direction the rocket was initially traveling -- a cloud through which a crew capsule would travel were it ejected from the rocket 30 to 60 seconds after liftoff.
NASA manager Jeff Hanley disagreed with the Air Force's conclusion, which he pointed out used only one point of reference.
"We have analysis that tells today that the capsule will fly free of the danger," he told the Sentinel. "Our analysis says ... the crew capsule will not be exposed to the more severe environments."
The launch-abort issue is just the latest serious problem found with the Ares I, which is an extended version of the twin solid-fuel boosters currently used to launch space shuttles.
In late 2007, NASA engineers discovered that at certain vibration frequencies, the Ares I might shake apart at launch.
A year later, computer simulations indicated that wind speeds of as little as 13 mph could blow the rocket into its own launch tower at liftoff.
NASA has downplayed both issues, saying all new rockets experience design problems.
President Obama has named a special commission, headed by renowned aeronautical engineer and businessman Norman Augustine, to review the entire NASA manned space program, including the Ares I rocket
Its preliminary report is due next month.