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NASA launches rocket name

The rockets NASA plans to use to go to the moon and perhaps on to Mars will be called Ares 1 and Ares 5, the agency's associate administrator for exploration systems announced today. The names pay "homage to Saturn," NASA's Scott Horowitz said, referring to the Saturn 1 and Saturn 5 rockets that were used for the first push to the moon.

Ares was the god of war in Greek mythology, the equivalent of the Roman god Mars. So NASA's new rocket name is meant to evoke the Red Planet - but Horowitz insisted that it's not meant to sound warlike. "We didn't name it after the god of war," he told reporters. "That's not our intent. Our intent was that it relates to Mars and exploration."

Even though Horowitz proposed a pacifist rationale for the name, the Ares rockets should pack quite a punch.

The Ares 1, formerly known as the Crew Launch Vehicle, uses a shuttle-derived, five-segment solid rocket booster, with an upper stage powered by an upgraded Apollo-era J-2 rocket engine. Gross liftoff weight is 2 million pounds, the stack measures 309 feet high, and it should be able to deliver a 25-ton payload to orbit, according to NASA's stats.

The Ares 5, formerly known as the Cargo Launch Vehicle, will use two of those beefed-up solid rocket boosters, strapped onto a first stage with five RS-68 engines. There'll be an upper stage similar to that used by the Ares 1. The whole stack would weigh 7.4 million pounds, measure 358 feet in length, and put about 130 tons of payload into orbit. That payload capacity is very close to that of the Saturn 5.

Wind-tunnel testing of the Ares 1 is already under way, said Jeff Hanley, program manager for the overall Constellation launch system.

"A lot of work [is] ongoing right now," Hanley said.

First testing of the Ares 1's launch abort system could begin in late 2008, with a step-by-step schedule for testing the full-scale vehicle beginning in 2009. Hanley said the launch abort system tests were likely to take place at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, while the full-fledged vehicle tests might be launched from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39B, the very pad where Discovery is sitting now.

"The shuttle team is intending to be finished with Pad B by that time," Hanley said.

The first crewed flights are now slated to begin in September 2014 - eventually leading to landings on the moon beginning in the 2018-2020 timeframe.

Horowitz said the fact that the components for the Ares vehicle are drawn from the Apollo and shuttle programs was a plus, because so much of the performance data would already be in hand. "You're actually buying down risk very early in the program," he said.

Other components of the system - such as the Crew Exploration Vehicle, the capsule that will sit atop the Ares 1 - have yet to be named. But the name, and the selection of the contractor for the CEV, could be announced by September, NASA says.

Hanley said his team was looking at conceptual designs for the lunar lander as well.

As far as the naming process goes, Horowitz said he "utilized in-house NASA expertise" to winnow through thousands of proposed monikers. The name Ares harkens back to "The Case for Mars," a book in which the Mars Society's Robert Zubrin proposed a strategy for future Red Planet missions. Part of the process was doing the legal work to back up the name, including trademark registration, Horowitz said. (Click here and do a search for trademark serial number 78891265.)

The rumored "notional names" for the CEV and the lunar lander are Antares and Artemis, as reported previously. But Horowitz said he and other officials were still looking over "three or four" finalists for the CEV, including a "leading candidate." He declined to tip his hand on Antares' status on the list.

Update for 7:50 p.m. ET: I fixed a couple of bonehead errors in the technical descriptions of the launch vehicles. At least I think I spelled A-R-E-S correctly.