for National Geographic News
In one small step for NASA's plans to return humans to the moon and beyond, the Ares I-X rocket lifted off from Florida's Kennedy Space Center today at 11:30 a.m. ET and successfully completed its six-minute test flight.
The Ares I-X—the largest rocket in the world at 327 feet (99.6 meters) tall—was a test version of a system designed to carry a four- to six-person crew capsule, dubbed Orion.
Ares and Orion are slated to become NASA's primary means of ferrying people and supplies into space by 2017. The craft will replace the space shuttle program, which is due to be retired in 2010.
Ares I-X Flight Plan
In a real Ares I rocket, the first part, or stage, would propel the craft into space at up to four times the speed of sound.
The first stage would then separate, and the second stage would provide enough thrust to maneuver the Orion capsule into Earth orbit.
NASA eventually plans to build an Ares V rocket, which would work in tandem with Ares I. Ares V would deliver the Altair lunar lander into orbit, where it would rendezvous with Orion, fire its engines to break free from Earth's gravity, and speed toward the moon.
The Ares I-X test rocket was similar in size and mass to the real deal. But only the first stage included working hardware: a solid-rocket motor from the space shuttle, flight hardware adapted from an Atlas V rocket, and a set of newly designed parachutes.
The upper stage and crew capsule were mock-ups designed to simulate the shape and weight of the real pieces the Ares I rocket will need to carry into space.
At two minutes into the Ares I-X flight, the first stage successfully burned out and separated from the rest of the craft. The boosters fell back down to reenter Earth's atmosphere, parachuting into the Atlantic Ocean for recovery.
The simulated upper stage and crew capsule continued without commands from NASA up to 28 miles (45 kilometers) above Earth's surface before falling back through the atmosphere and crashing into the Atlantic.
The upper section of Ares I-X will not be recovered.
Ares I-X, Stop-and-Go for Launch
Today's successful Ares I-X flight was NASA's second try at a launch.
An initial attempt yesterday was plagued by hours of false starts, beginning with a planned 8 a.m. launch that went on hold due to concerns over high upper-level winds, which might have affected the rocket's trajectory.
In addition, NASA launch managers were concerned about shifting cloud cover over the Kennedy Space Center. Clouds carry a risk of electrical charge that can disrupt rocket-to-ground communications, which would prevent the streaming flow of performance data that should make the Ares test drive so valuable.
Anticipating a break in yesterday's weather, at 9:23 a.m. mission managers ordered technicians to pull back a cloth that had been protecting a probe and air-temperature gauge on top of the rocket. Those instruments are meant to provide data on speed, pressure, and angle of ascent.
In yet another snag, however, the cover did not fall away completely, and its thick cord became tangled on the rocket's tip. Three minutes later the cord came free, and a new launch time was set for 9:44 a.m.
Wayward Ship Stymies Ares Launch
At 9:30 a.m. yesterday weather officers gave the launch the green light, and the pelaunch sequences began.
But within five minutes word came in to halt the launch because of a cargo ship that had been spotted in waters within the so-called danger zone, the region where ships are at risk from falling debris.
Launch sequences resumed at 9:43 a.m., only to be stalled again by clouds moving into the rocket's flight path.
Weather concerns continued to reset the launch clock until mission managers made the call at 11:23 a.m. to scrub the Tuesday launch and try again on Wednesday.
Ares Rocket a Lost Cause?
NASA hopes today's Ares I-X test flight will signal the beginning of a brave new era for space exploration. But some experts argue that the rocket was simply the expenditure of some very costly hot air.
Given the high price tag, some vocal critics—including legendary moonwalker Buzz Aldrin—want to pull the plug on the new Ares rockets and rely on mission-tested Delta IV or Atlas V rockets, modified for new missions.
Others have proposed designing new crew vehicles that will work with existing lift components from the space shuttle. This plan would deliver a less powerful but far cheaper way to return to the moon, though not beyond.
And earlier this month, a panel of experts dubbed the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee reported that upcoming funding shortages could force NASA to curb many of its ambitious plans, including Ares.
But committee members are quick to point out that the rocket was not given an absolute death knell.
"Comments in the blogosphere that we [recommended] killing Ares are just not true," said committee member and former NASA astronaut Leroy Chiao.
"We presented options [for the future of human spaceflight]—that was our mandate—and Ares I appears in two of the options."
Final decisions on NASA's future actions will be made in Congress and the White House.
"It's far from certain what path the [Obama] Administration is going to choose," Chiao said. "There are options that include Ares and options that do not include Ares, so the jury is still out."
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