Move over space shuttle; here comes the NASA Ares 1-X

NASA plans to fire up an Ares 1-X rocket next week.

The towering 327-foot-tall Ares I-X rocket (the legendary Saturn V is 36 feet taller) moves away from the Vehicle Assembly Building for launch pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Oct. 20, 2009. The rocket is scheduled for an unmanned test flight on Oct.27. When topped with the Orion crew capsule, the vehicle is slated to replace the space shuttle in sending four to six astronauts into low-Earth orbit.

NASA rolled out its shiny new Ares 1-X to pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center overnight in anticipation of the rocket's first test launch next week.

The Ares 1-X is the experimental version of a rocket that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration plans to use as the space shuttle's replacement. The shuttle program is down to its final six flights before the three remaining orbiters become museum exhibits.

NASA's current plans call for launching the Ares 1-X Oct. 27. Over the next three years, the agency will put the escape system on the Orion crew capsule through its paces. NASA plans to launch another test rocket, the Ares 1-Y, in 2014. Then in 2015 NASA hopes to perch the capsule atop another Ares 1 booster and test the entire package.

But wait. That roll out looks as though it involves the complete package. Not this time. The upper stage and capsule are mockups. In fact, the first stage – a modified solid-fuel motor from the shuttle program – has fuel packed only into four of its five segments.

So what do engineers hope to get out of this test? After all, the upper stage will only reach about 150,000 feet, then plunge back into the Atlantic. Among other things, designers want to see how well the flight-control system works during the rocket's climb. They want to test the parachute-based recovery system for the reusable first stage. And they want to see how the craft shakes, rattles, and rolls when the first and second stages separate. They want to see what effect the separation process might have on the performance of the rocket motor they'll have in the upper stage.

This testing time line, of course, depends on what the Obama administration and Congress decide to do with the options for the future of human spaceflight the Augustine committee set out. The administration requested the study in May. The committee released a summary of its findings early last month. You can download a pdf version of the summary here. The full report is being released on Thursday and will be available online at the commission's web page.

Stay tuned.

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