NASA's Latest Worry: Ares Rocket Could Slam Into Launch Tower

By Eliza Strickland | October 28, 2008 2:22 pm

Ares I rocket liftoffA new technical problem with NASA‘s next generation Ares I rocket is causing headaches for the space agency, and could leave engineers scrambling to keep the project on time and on budget. Rumors are flying that this new glitch, in addition to other technical issues that have cropped up in the past few years, may cause the agency to abandon the design altogether. A former Florida congressman and current lobbyist told state officials that NASA’s next rocket is “on the chopping block” and that a new administration may abandon the Ares I as successor to the space shuttle. The next president may look instead to use military rockets to launch NASA astronauts [Orlando Sentinel blog].

After the space shuttles retire, NASA expects to complete work on the Ares I rocket and its matching Orion crew capsule, with hopes of resuming manned flights by 2015. But the Ares I has already been criticized for lacking lift power, and then for a vibration problem that could dramatically shake up astronauts. The latest concern arises from computer models showing that the Ares I could crash into the launch tower during liftoff.

The issue is known as “liftoff drift.” Ignition of the rocket’s solid-fuel motor makes it “jump” sideways on the pad, and a southeast breeze stronger than 12.7 mph would be enough to push the 309-foot-tall ship into its launch tower. Worst case, the impact would destroy the rocket. But even if that doesn’t happen, flames from the rocket would scorch the tower, leading to huge repair costs…. “I get the impression that things are quickly going from bad to worse to unrecoverable” [Orlando Sentinel], said one NASA contractor who requested anonymity.

NASA officials have steadfastly defended the program against its critics. “I think we are beset by quite a number of commentators who really don’t understand what’s involved in an engineering development programme,” agency chief Mike Griffin said … earlier this month. “The development of our Ares and Orion crew vehicles, despite what you read on internet blogs, is actually going quite well” [New Scientist]. In response to the newly published concerns over liftoff drift, NASA officials said they could minimize the problem by redesigning the launch pad, but engineers questioned how much money and time that would take.

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Image: NASA

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space, Technology
  • gaetano marano

    There are (at least) TWO simple ways to solve the Ares-1 liftoff-drift issue:

  • Charles Boyer

    Ares I really should go on the chopping block. Its capabilities decline with each iteration and its costs increase. This is turning into a boondoggle and it will harm our nation’s space capabilities.

    I would say it is time for an objective outside engineering design review pitting Ares v. Direct v. EELV.

    Given the incumbent and proven technology of EELV, I think it would be the winner, eliminate a space gap and give NASA the breathing room and time it needs to develop Ares V.

  • Chris

    I often wonder why we aren’t moving towards non-chemical launch mechanisms, such as a mag rail.

  • John Castner

    I’m not familiar with EELV, but mag rail as promoted by Popular Science & its ilk is generally a bad idea for Earth launches, or any launch from a substantial atmosphere (probably even Mars). All the velocity must be imparted from essentially ground level, where the air is densest, and the drag therefore the highest. This drag would not be linear like what we experience in a car between 0 & 55 mph, but instead increase as the square, cube, or even higher order term of the velocity. Huge amounts of the projectile’s kinetic energy would be lost to this drag, and massive amounts of heat would be generated (more than the shuttles’ amazing tiles could handle). A low-earth orbit would probably require launch velocities an order of magnitude higher than final orbital velocity to make up for the reduction in velocity due to the drag. A mag rail built up the side of Everest, launching packages with booster rockets in them to impart needed velocity after the atmosphere thins out even more, MIGHT circumvent some of these problems, only to generate others such as maintenance from ice & snow. Plus, it would be nearly as flexible or reach as high as the plane-launch systems currently in private development.

    In the very long-term, non-chemical systems will be the way to go, but we’re not there yet. Nuclear is still too controversial, and space elevators are too expensive, rely on as-yet-undeveloped materials science, and are too vulnerable to terrorist attack.

    And mag rails will make great sense on the moon, at least for cargoes insensitive to the EM fields associated.

  • John Castner

    Correction: At the end of the first paragraph, “Plus, it would NOT be nearly as flexible nor reach as high …”

  • Darren

    Re: Chris, mag rail,

    Dude, mag rail is years away from real research and developement, we need real technology, right now, we can’t wait another 10 years for a glimmer of what might be.

    Now we should use both Ares I and Ares V. You don’t abandon an investment into developement when you’re this close to finishing. We don’t need another Buran program. We should stay this course, it has the greatest flexibility, and highest lift capability anyone has come up with since the Energia system.

    At worst fall back on Direct. It has the most resonable compromise, lowest expense, and fastest return to flight for both light and heavy loads, that yes, would fill the gap, NOW!

    A alternative would be to push for comercial companies to build both Ares in a competition. We would contract for the ride like Obama wants. It would save NASA time, but it would cost NASA the reputation and tradition of doing all themselves.

    IMO, we need to get the budget back up to 10 Billion or so a year and leave it there. NASA should never compete for funding, and it should never loose funding based on a decision made by congress or a short term president. Let the real people decide by popular vote.


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