Even as engineers prepare for the first test flight of NASA’s new Ares I-X rocket, a prototype of the launch vehicle that could replace the space shuttle, the experts who conducted a review of NASA’s space flight program are suggesting that this rocket project should be scrapped entirely.
The test flight of the $450 million Ares I-X is scheduled for 8 a.m. tomorrow, weather permitting. It’s a prototype of the planned Ares I rocket, designed to carry astronauts to the International Space Station once the shuttle fleet is retired. But the White House panel convened to evaluate NASA’s plan for space exploration issued its final report (pdf) on Thursday, and in a press conference committee chair Norman Augustine harshly critiqued the Ares I project. Though Augustine said the rocket’s technical problems were solvable, he said its first crewed flights would come too late to be much help in servicing the International Space Station (ISS). “The issue that comes up under Ares I is whether the programme is useful,” he said [New Scientist].
The so-called Augustine report holds no major surprises, since the committee issued a summary of its findings in September. But the timing of the report and Augustine’s comments brought the fate of the Ares I rocket to the fore. NASA had originally hoped that it might begin carrying astronauts to the International Space Station in 2012. The current NASA schedule calls for the first flight in 2015, but the review panel concluded that with the agency’s financial constraints, the Ares I was not likely to make its first manned flight until 2017 [The New York Times]. The lifespan of the Space Station has been in question–it’s currently scheduled for decommissioning in 2015, but that could be postponed until 2020. Still, experts say that progress on Ares I rocket might simply be too slow to make a difference to the ISS, and suggest that private companies should be enlisted to build and operate vehicles to service the space station.
However, the Ares rocket still has some dedicated supporters in Congress, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona, who is married to an astronaut. In response to Augustine’s statements, Giffords argued that the Ares 1-Orion program is in good shape and that “we are not prepared to have our astronauts’ access to space held hostage to purchases of seats from nonexistent commercial providers” [Science News].
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Image: NASA / Jack Pfaller