A prototype version of NASA's newest rocket is ready for its planned Tuesday launch, mission managers said Friday.
NASA is set to test the design of its next-generation rocket, Ares I, during a demonstration liftoff called Ares I-X. The launch, slated for 8 a.m. ET on Oct. 27 from Launch Pad 39B at Kennedy Space Center here, will be a suborbital flight of the new rocket's first stage, with a dummy second stage and mock crew capsule on top.
NASA officially gave the go-ahead for Tuesday's launch after a Flight Test Readiness Review meeting among mission managers.
"The team is ready to go fly," said Bob Ess, Ares I-X mission manager, at a briefing following the meeting. "The vehicle is actually ready to go fly."
But the weather outlook for Tuesday is iffy, with only a 40 percent chance of favorable conditions expected. NASA requires clear skies for the launch so that the rocket's flight is visible and detailed data can be collected.
"Weather is always a challenge and next week will be no different," said Ed Mango, Ares I-X launch director. "But we're five days out and a lot can change in those five days."
If NASA can't launch Ares I-X on Tuesday, it can try again on Wednesday. On both days, the rocket only needs about 10 minutes of good weather sometime between 8 a.m. and noon ET.
The Ares I rocket is NASA's chosen rocket to replace the aging space shuttle fleet as a vehicle to carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit.
But whether NASA will actually build Ares I hinges on an upcoming decision by President Barack Obama's administration, which is currently assessing the results of an independent review of U.S. human spaceflight plans. The review panel released a final report Thursday that raised the possibility of nixing Ares I and encouraging commercial aerospace companies to build a crew-carrying launch vehicle. That would allow NASA to focus on designing the technology and heavy-lift rocket to take humans to the moon, Mars, or nearby asteroids, the panel said.
"We are happy that the report is released and we have that to work with," said Doug Cooke, associate administrator of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. "We are assessing our options. No decisions have been made at this point."
Whether or not the new rocket is approved as part of NASA's future goals, the Ares I-X test marks a major milestone for the agency.
This is NASA's first test flight for a new crew launch vehicle since the first space shuttle was launched in 1981. Cook said the flight is still vital to NASA even if Ares I is not in the cards for the agency's future.
"We believe, and actually feel very strongly, that this test is very important for a number of reasons," Cook said. "Even getting to this point today this team has learned about getting a vehicle designed and ready to launch, and it's really an inspiring point to be at ... The data is important to us regardless of what comes next."