updated 10/28/2009 11:31:35 AM ET 2009-10-28T15:31:35

A one-of-a-kind NASA rocket soared into the Florida sky Wednesday in a brief but critical test flight of a new booster slated to launch astronauts into space and, eventually, toward the moon.

NASA's Ares I-X booster, an unmanned prototype of the planned Ares I rocket intended to carry astronauts after the space shuttle fleet retires, blasted off on an experimental mission from the seaside Launch Pad 39B here at the Kennedy Space Center.

After several false starts due to bad weather, the rocket took advantage of a brief break in the clouds to loft at 11:30 a.m. ET. Foul weather and a series of unlucky events foiled its first launch attempt Tuesday. NASA required good visibility for this first flight of the untried rocket.

The rocket lifted off despite a bout of thunderstorms that passed over it Tuesday night. About 150 lighting strikes were seen to fall near the site, with four lightning impacts within about a half mile of the launch pad. The countdown toward liftoff was delayed Wednesday morning while ground crews checked out the vehicle to make sure it suffered no lightning damage; luckily, the tests showed Ares I-X was safe to fly.

"We looked at all the systems that could have been affected by this and all the data indicates that there was absolutely no real effect," Ares I-X deputy mission manager Jon Cowart said Wednesday morning.

The towering white booster rose into the sky toward the east, peaked at about 28 miles (45 km) altitude, then dropped into the Atlantic Ocean, with parachutes softening its fall. By all appearances, the launch — which was aimed at demonstrating the rocket's design — was successful.

Wealth of data
The mission is expected to return a wealth of data — readings from more than 700 onboard sensors as well as visual evidence from cameras on the ground and borne by flying aircraft. NASA engineers will pore over the information to study the rocket's trajectory and performance to help confirm and shape the design of Ares I.

"It's a huge amount of data," said Bob Ess, Ares I-X mission manager. "It's reams and reams of data that will take at best months to go through and understand."

The teams plan to release periodic reports over the next three months to share the results of the fact-finding test flight. "We'll come back and tell the agency and the public what we learned from the flight," Ess said.

Tuesday's launch plans were stymied by clouds, winds and the threat of rain. If the rocket travels through high clouds it runs a risk of triggering "trioboelectrification" — static electricity that could interfere with sensitive onboard instruments. In addition to weather concerns, a stuck cover on one of the rocket's probes stalled Tuesday morning, further delaying the countdown, and a freight boat later strayed into restricted waters close to the launch pad, thwarting one launch attempt.

Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 The Ares I-X rocket was composed of a real first stage, with four tuna can-shaped solid-rocket segments and a dummy fifth segment on top.  It also carried a simulated upper stage and crew capsule to mimic the intended size and mass of a full Ares I booster. At 327 feet (100 meters) high on the launch pad, it was the tallest rocket in service today, however brief its two-minute flight lasted.

The solid-rocket elements were based on, and utilized hardware from, the solid rocket boosters that help lift space shuttles into orbit.

After liftoff, the rocket's two stages separated as planned about two minutes into the flight when an explosive device along their boundary fired on schedule. The first stage sank under parachutes to be collected by boats from the sea so that its onboard data could be retrieved. The dummy second stage was left to sink into the Atlantic Ocean.

Uncertain future
Despite the apparent success of Ares I-X's flight, the ultimate future of the Ares I rocket is uncertain.

The booster was originally designed to replace the space shuttles as a vehicle to ferry crews to the International Space Station. But the station is set to be de-orbited around 2016 and Ares I is not likely to be ready before 2017, defeating much of its purpose, some experts have said.

Last week, an independent review team appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama released a report detailing the status of America's human spaceflight program, and outlined possible alternate visions for NASA's future.

The president is currently reviewing the report and is expected to make a decision soon about whether to proceed with the Constellation program, which includes Ares I, or take the agency in a new direction. The report suggested that President Obama consider giving up on Ares I and instead urging private industry to step in and design a low-earth orbit vehicle for humans. That way, NASA could focus on building a heavy-lift vehicle to take people to the moon and Mars.

Despite the doubts hanging over the program, and the perhaps unfortunate timing of the panel's report being released less than a week before the Ares I-X launch, mission managers say they are focusing on the task at hand.

"The timing is what it is, but the test is significant and it's one that we fully back," said Doug Cooke, associate administrator of NASA's exploration systems.

Mission managers said that even if NASA does not go forward with Ares I, Tuesday's flight test provided useful data, not just about that particular rocket, but about the process of designing and building new rockets in general.

"The data were going to get and the objectives we're going to get are really germane to a whole class of launch vehicles," Ess said.

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Video: Ares rocket successfully launches

  1. Closed captioning of: Ares rocket successfully launches

    >> aisle. we want to you right now to cape canaveral . you see there the ares 1 -x rocket taking off many, many, many delays, including several this morning. it's expected to last about two minutes. four years of work, $400 million put into what many had seen as the future of the manned space future for america. so this, again, is supposed to last about two minutes. the delay today -- i think, a couple, like three and saw several yesterday. jay barbree is standing by with way more details than we have here! jay, finally, this thing is taking off!

    >> we sure are, tamron . it is really going and it is getting its way out of here. we have a picture on board and you can look down and actually see the cape behind it as it's going into space now. it is really moving! this is the first for the constellation program and last about two minutes. the idea here is, tamron , that they will have a spacecraft named o'ryan on the top and it could be carrying as many as six astronauts into orbit but, today, this first stage, is the only stage that is going to be fired and it look -- it's a lot like the stage that is used on the shuttles. we just lost the picture there.

    >> we got it back, we got it back!

    >> yeah. you see this, tamron ? this is great. it's like a needle going through and it's perfect. they were a little concerned about whether or not this thing would fly straight and true . well, by golly, she flying straight and through, just right on course.

    >> again, jay, remind our audience of the significance or the importance of this ares 1 -x. the x stants for experimental here. what is nasa trying to learn with this launch?

    >> well, if they continue and develop this rocket , what they will be able to do is use this rocket to send our astronauts out of earth's orbit. we have been anchored in earth orbit by decision of president nixon for 34 years. president kennedy sent us to the moon and here we are breaking away ! it's ever with and it's been a perfect launch and there it is headed out over the atlantic and that has been the two minutes, tamron , but if they go ahead, if the president obama decides to develop this, this rocket will be able to send astronauts into orbit and with the assistance of a sister rocket , it will be able to send them anywhere in our solar system and people talk about going back to the moon, that's very important. but what is important in 2029 we have an asteroid headed our way and pass earth by 18,000 miles. if that asteroid should hit us it could take out the size of the state of new york and do tremendous damage. they are concerned about it and you would be this type -- need this type of rocket in order to get astronauts out there that could rendezvous with this asteroid and deflect it away from earth.

    >> jay, back to you mention --

    >> we need this type of a rocket and this is what they are trying to develop.

    >> you mentioned the obama administration. a lot of questions about funding and whether nasa will see more cuts, which, thus, would affect this experimental rocket program and others.

    >> that's true, tamron . but, you see, $3.2 billion has been spent on this rocket . $8.3 billion has already been spent on the constellation program . you can spend another 3 billion and get this great rocket which is 5 times safer than the space shuttle . that is the key here. if they start all over again and they start redeveloping, it's not only going to cost a lot more money, it's going to cost time and ten years before we will be able to put astronauts on another rocket and then we will be renting, as taxes, we will be renting the soyus spacecraft from the russians to get our spacecraft to the space station . president obama is expected to announce this in the state of the union message. he has told our senator bill nelson he has continued to continue a human exploration program so most people feel real good about what president obama will do, that this will continue but people talking about this cost $400 million today. that money had already been spent.

    >> jay, monica here. let me ask you a quick question in terms of it seems everything you saw this looks like a success to you. i assume nasa is getting information back from the ares as it's launched. does this look like a full, clear success to you at this point?

    >> it does but they had 700 sensors on board so they are going to have a lot more information than we can see with the naked eye . yes, we will get all of this back. right now, it looks like a great success. this is the 207th flight of this solid rocket . it's the same one they use on the shuttle, monica, but they wanted to make sure that this configuration, as long as a football field , would fly perfectly and it looked like it did.

    >> you know what? thanks for the enthusiasm, jay, and the information! always a pleasure to have you as our guide through this. finally, the ares 1 -x took off and looks picture perfect at least from this vantage point but see what more details nasa will deliver later today . thank you very much, jay.


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