The pieces are coming together for the first test flight of NASA's new rocket, Ares 1, scheduled to lift off this summer.
The rocket prototype, called Ares 1-X, is scheduled to blast off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The flight will be unmanned, and will only include a partial first stage of the rocket, which should lift the vehicle and mockups of its upper stage to about 25 miles (40.2 kilometers) in roughly two minutes.
The test is a critical first try of the new Ares 1 rocket for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, which NASA hopes will replace the space shuttle as America's preeminent spaceship. Ares 1 is designed to carry astronauts in the capsule-shaped Orion vehicle that will sit atop the rocket. NASA aims to send crews aboard Orion to the international space station by 2015, to the moon around 2020 and ultimately beyond.
Ares 1 is being built as part of NASA's Project Constellation, which will also include a larger sister rocket, Ares 5, designed to carry heavy cargo instead of people.
"This launch will tell us what we got right and what we got wrong in the design and analysis phase," said Jonathan Cruz, deputy project manager for Ares 1-X Crew Module/Launch Abort System. "We have a lot of confidence, but we need those two minutes of flight data before NASA can continue to the next phase of rocket development."
Launch debut looms
Slated for late July or early August, the upcoming Ares 1-X demonstration launch will test whether the bottom section of the rocket, called the first stage, burns as planned, as well as whether it can separate from a dummy upper stage and fall back to Earth safely with parachutes.
Engineers on the ground will monitor the flight closely through sensors attached all over the rocket to see if the overall vehicle design is safe and stable.
The sensors measure aerodynamic pressure and temperature at the top of the rocket to study how it slices through the atmosphere, determining the flow of air over the entire vehicle.
The four cylindrical segments making up Ares 1-X's first stage arrived at Kennedy Space Center March 19 from the Alliant Techsystems facility in Utah where they were fueled.
"The team's been working many years to get to this point," said Jon Cowart, Kennedy's deputy mission manager for Ares 1-X. "When you get the last of the hardware here, it really energizes the folks and they begin to think this thing really could happen. It becomes that much more real."
Some assembly required
Since arriving at the Cape, the Ares 1-X segments are being stacked inside the giant Vehicle Assembly Building. The dummy upper stages, which are packed with weights to simulate the real thing, will be bolted onto the top. When complete, the rocket will stand higher than 320 feet (97.5 meters).
The launcher is planned to lift off from Kennedy's Launch Pad 39B, which has also been used to launch both space shuttles and the Saturn 5 rockets that carried Apollo capsules.
On March 25, the Mobile Launcher Platform-1, which is used to assemble vehicles and transport them to their launch pads, was handed over from the shuttle program to Constellation. The 4,625-ton, two-story steel structure is now being repurposed for the Ares 1-X launch.
"It truly is a historic day to be turning over a major piece of hardware from one manned spaceflight program to another," shuttle launch director Mike Leinbach said. "It really doesn't happen very often."
The launcher platform has previously been used for both shuttle and Apollo flights, including the launch of Apollo 11, which first took humans to the moon. It is planned to retire after this summer's test flight, having served three different space programs.