The Ares I rocket, scrapped during President Obama‘s overhaul of NASA, may be making a comeback. Two rocket-makers say that they have reached a plan to salvage the design of Ares I and use it to compete in the private competition to provide post-shuttle space taxi service to NASA.
The partners are Alliant Techsystems of Minneapolis (ATK) and the European company Astrium, which builds Ariane 5 rockets to carry satellites into space. Today they are announcing their collaboration on the new 300-foot rocket.
The new rocket, named Liberty, would be much cheaper than the Ares I, because the unfinished NASA-designed upper stage of the Ares I would be replaced with the first stage of the Ariane 5, which has been launched successfully 41 consecutive times. The lower stage of the Liberty, a longer version of the shuttle booster built by ATK, would be almost unchanged from the Ares I. [The New York Times]
To truly go ahead with the project, the two companies will need to snag at least some of the $200 million in funding NASA is set to give next month to private companies developing space taxi technology. Giants like Lockheed Martin and Boeing, as well as newer private space companies like SpaceX, are all competing for these dollars and contracts.
NASA’s Ares I-X experimental rocket completed its first test flight—but the successful endeavor ended on a sour note. The rocket’s first booster stage, which splashed down in the ocean as planned six minutes after launch, was found to be significantly dented when divers reached the mammoth cylinder to prep it for retrieval [Scientific American]. A malfunctioning parachute system caused the hard splashdown, according to mission manager Bob Ess. However Ess argued that it’s not a real cause for concern, since test flights are intended to reveal and work out the technology’s glitches.
The Ares I-X was a prototype for the controversial Ares I rocket that may carry astronauts to the International Space Station and beyond once the space shuttle is retired. The rocket’s design calls for the first booster stage to be retrieved after each flight for reuse. While NASA’s main objective on the test flight was to evaluate the rocket booster’s power, the test of the new parachute system was one of several major objectives of the Ares 1-X test flight [Spaceflight Now]. Despite the test flight’s overall success, the parachute system’s failure is a black eye for the $450 million project, since the heavy Ares I booster rocket will be difficult to ease back down to Earth. The booster is being retrieved from the Atlantic Ocean to determine what exactly went wrong with the parachute system.
80beats: Liftoff! NASA’s New Rocket Takes to the Sky in a Successful Test Flight
80beats: New NASA Rocket May Not Be “Useful,” White House Panel Says
80beats: NASA’s Lanky Ares Rocket Gets Ready for a Test Flight
This morning, NASA’s experimental Ares I-X rocket blasted off a Florida launch pad and roared through the atmosphere, successfully executing the first test flight of the rocket that may carry astronauts to the International Space Station and beyond once the space shuttle is retired. However, debate over the direction of NASA’s manned space flight program means that the rocket’s future is far from certain.
The prototype rocket took off through a few clouds from a former shuttle launch pad at 11:30 a.m., 3 1/2 hours late because of bad weather. Launch controllers had to retest the rocket systems after more than 150 lightning strikes were reported around the pad overnight. Then they had to wait out interfering rain clouds, the same kind that thwarted Tuesday’s try [AP].
Engineers had been concerned that if the rocket took off through rain clouds, the moisture might cause a phenomenon called triboelectrification. This occurs when the rocket encounters water or ice droplets in the clouds. As these collide with the rocket they cause a static charge to build up on its skin, creating interference with radio signals. This is a problem for the 1-X team, which needs clear signals to gather data from 700 sensors wired throughout the vehicle, which are designed to collect flight data [BBC News]. Luckily, the late morning provided a relatively cloud-free window for takeoff.
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].
A prototype of the rocket that may blast astronauts into space once the space shuttle is finally retired will get a high-profile test flight next week, and this morning the tall, skinny rocket was rolled onto the launch pad in Florida. While the experimental Ares I-X rocket certainly looked grand as it was rolled slowly from the assembly building to the launch pad (a four-mile trip that took seven hours), its future is far from certain. A White House panel has been considering cancelling Ares I in favour of a commercial launcher. Its final report is expected this week [New Scientist].
NASA’s new sky-scraping rocket measures 327 feet high; it dwarfs the space shuttles, which measure 184 feet high. “It’s a tall rocket; it’s been over three decades since anyone has built a rocket this tall. That was the Saturn V,” explained Trent Smith, the vehicle processing engineer for the Ares 1-X. “We have over 700 sensors on this rocket; and the whole point of Ares 1-X is to understand how does a rocket this shape, this weight, this tall actually fly” [BBC News].
While NASA‘s central mission is the same as it always was–to send astronauts up, up, and away!–the details of how it will send bold explorers into the space frontier are suddenly, well, up in the air. After months of signaling displeasure with NASA’s operations, the Obama administration has ordered a 90-day review of the human space flight program. In a letter to NASA Acting Administrator Christopher Scolese, the president’s science adviser, John Holdren, wrote that “it would be only prudent” to review NASA’s human space flight program given the magnitude of its ambitions and “the significant investment of both funds and scientific capital” [Washington Post].
The crux of the matter is the Constellation program, which aims to replace the aging space shuttles with the newly designed Ares rockets and Orion crew capsule. But during the past several months, watchdog agencies have questioned whether NASA can deliver the Constellation program on time and within budget. Its estimated costs through 2015 have risen from $28 billion in 2006 to more than $40 billion today, and engineers still are wrestling with design flaws that would cause Ares I to shake violently during ascent and also possibly drift into its launch tower [Orlando Sentinel]. Back in December, Obama’s transition team reportedly asked NASA officials if military rockets used to launch satellites could be reconfigured to boost astronauts to the International Space Station and on to the moon.
The new budget proposed by President Barack Obama boosts funding for NASA and shows the new president’s commitment to exploration of the moon and our solar system’s planets. Under the proposed budget, the agency would receive $18.7 billion in 2010. Combined with $1 billion in funding provided in an economic stimulus package signed into law last week, NASA would get $2.4 billion more than it did in 2008 [New Scientist].
Like his predecessor George W. Bush, Obama wants to return people to the moon and send robots further into space [Reuters]. But while the proposed funding boost pleases many in the space community, the budget disappoints “shuttle-huggers” who hoped that Obama would keep the space shuttle flying past the 2010 retirement date set by the Bush administration. Instead, the proposal instructs NASA to stick to that deadline, although it does offer one concession.
Rumors are flying that President-elect Barack Obama will nominate retired fighter pilot Jonathan Scott Gration to lead NASA, a surprising pick due to Gration’s very limited experience with NASA and the space community. However, the 32-year veteran of the Air Force is close with Obama–the two traveled through Africa together in 2006–and space policy expert John Logsdon says that personal history augers well for the agency: “Obama has picked one of his close personal associates to be the head of NASA. It would make no sense for Obama to send a close associate to an agency (and) then not support the agency” [Houston Chronicle].
Gration spent one year in the 1980s as a White House Fellow working for NASA’s deputy administrator, but that is his only direct experience with the space agency. However, he may have been studying up recently. People familiar with the selection of Gration said he helped craft Obama’s space policy, which calls for the U.S. to minimize the gap between the 2010 retirement of NASA’s shuttle fleet and the first piloted flights of successor spacecraft in 2015. Released last August, the policy also calls for returning American astronauts to the moon by 2020 as a precursor to missions to other more distant destinations, such as Mars [Florida Today].
In a vote of confidence for the fledgling commercial space industry, NASA has awarded contracts that could total $3.5 billion to two companies that plan to build rockets and ferry supplies to the International Space Station. The companies, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation, could begin launches as soon as 2010 to help fill the gap between the space shuttle‘s expected retirement and the introduction of NASA’s next-generation rocket, the Ares I. The companies beat out traditional NASA contractors like Boeing and Lockheed Martin to snag the contracts.
Experts say that giving a contract to the young company SpaceX is a particularly bold bet. SpaceX, the plan’s linchpin because it is intended to begin the service, carries a relatively short pedigree as a government contractor and can point to only one successful launch, after three failures, of a smaller version of its Falcon rocket intended to supply the space station. Orbital Sciences is an established, midsize aerospace contractor but lacks a proven track record for the revamped version of the Taurus rocket it will use to supply the station [The Wall Street Journal, subscription required].
NASA officials have long pronounced themselves ready to move on from the aging space shuttles, which could be retired as soon as 2010, but the incoming Barack Obama administration has raised new doubts about what the next step should be. Last week, news reports surfaced that Obama’s transition team was questioning NASA about alternatives to the Ares I rocket that is currently under development as the shuttle’s replacement, and now transition team members are reportedly considering using modified military rockets instead. No decision has been made and the concept raises major technical, funding and policy issues. But in recent weeks, the transition team assigned to [NASA] has been asking aerospace industry officials about the feasibility of such a dramatic shift in priorities [The Wall Street Journal].
The Ares I rocket is designed to bring the new Orion crew capsule to the International Space Station, and eventually back to the moon and on to Mars. Technical difficulties and budget problems have raised doubts about the program, but NASA officials have dismissed these issues as a normal part of the process, and have argued against a change in plans. NASA officials stressed that moving away from the current Ares rocket designs almost certainly would entail extra costs and lengthy delays in getting the shuttle replacement off the ground. With the first Ares 1 test flight tentatively scheduled for next summer, “going to completely different hardware would put a big gap” in the workforce focusing on rocket development, said Steve Cook, Ares program manager. “We would really be stepping backward” by deciding that the shuttle replacement could ride safely on an alternate rocket [The Wall Street Journal].