NASA's Ares 1-X rocket is looking good for Tuesday launch

But will NASA's Ares 1-X wind up leading to a rocket with no place to go?

NASA: Next generation. NASA's slender white Ares 1-X towers some 327 feet above its launch pad, with the space shuttle Atlantis in the distance being prepared for a November launch. When (or if) completed, the Ares 1 and its Orion crew capsule will become NASA's newest taxi to low-Earth orbit.

NASA's Ares 1-X rocket is standing tall on the pad, waiting for what NASA managers hope will be its 2 minutes of fame.

That's about how long Ares 1-X will remain in the sky during its up-and-down test flight, currently scheduled for Oct. 27. The launch is set for 8 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time, so grab a cup of your favorite hot beverage, pull up a chair, and see what happens to the first new rocket NASA's order up in nearly 30 years.

"The hardware is in great shape," an enthusiastic Ed Mango told reporters Friday afternoon during a pre-launch briefing. He's the launch director for Ares 1-X.

The recipe? Take a pinch of systems initially designed for the Atlas 5 rocket, a workhorse for commercial and military launches. Add a dash of "legacy" components from the space shuttle -- in the case, the solid-fuel boosters. Mix well. Voila -- the beginnings of a new taxi to low-Earth orbit.

"Beginnings," because when launch computers light the fires on Tuesday, the ricket that rises will be launching Ares 1 Lite. The reusable solid-fuel motor is one segment short of a full stack; and the upper stage is a dummy.

Mission manager Bob Ess calls it launching a wind-tunnel vehicle.

Of course, a lot is riding on the outcome of this launch.

For engineers, the 700 sensors aboard the first stage will be gathering all sorts of information NASA will use to evaluate the stage's performance. The data also will provide a reality check on the computer models engineers are using to design the rest of Ares 1 and perhaps later, the Ares 5, a more-powerful sibling NASA also would like to build.

However, it is a test flight (yes, that means it is rocket science). The Ares 1-X team is striving for success. "But we can't guarantee success," Mr. Ess cautioned.

You can bet members of Congress and the White House will be watching closely.

A White House-appointed panel assessing the future of NASA's human spaceflight program released its final report on Thursday. In summarizing the report's options for the future, panel chairman Norman Augustine noted that flying the Ares 1-X is important to the future of NASA's program.

But times have changed since it first was proposed -- particularly regarding budgets. The Ares 1/Ares 5 and Orion crew capsule combo was a clever, reasonable approach in 2005, when it was embraced in President George W. Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, noted Edward Crawley, an MIT professor of aeronautics and astronautics and another panel member.

"It's a capable vehicle," he acknowledged. "But it's arguably too capable for use as a taxi to low-Earth orbit." Which is how NASA envisions using it. The bucks, he explained, just aren't there to finish it in time to actually use it to ferry astronauts anywhere. Or to keep it launching while still trying to build the Ares 5 or any exploration hardware to use on the moon.

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