With a hiss and roar NASA's Ares X rocket blasted into the atmosphere this at about 11:33 am EST taking with it a variety of test equipment and sensors but also high hopes for the future of the US space agency.
The short test flight -- about 2 minutes -- will provide NASA an early opportunity to look at hardware, models, facilities and ground operations associated with the mostly new Ares I launch vehicle.
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The mission went off without a hitch - "frickin fantastic" was how one NASA executive classified it on NASA TV -- as the upper stage simulator and first stage separated at approximately 130,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean. The unpowered simulator splashed down in the ocean.
The flight also will allow NASA to gather critical data during ascent of the integrated stack, which includes the Ares I rocket with a simulated upper stage, Orion crew exploration vehicle and launch abort system. Data collected, including from more than 700 sensors throughout the rocket, will begin to confirm the vehicle as a whole is safe and stable in flight before astronauts begin traveling into orbit, NASA stated.
The Ares I-X test rocket is similar in mass and size to the actual Ares I rocket and Orion spacecraft systems, but it will incorporate a mix of proven spaceflight and simulated, or mock-up, hardware, NASA stated.
The rocket will be powered by a single, four-segment reusable solid rocket booster -- flight hardware currently in the space shuttle inventory -- modified to include a fifth, inactive segment to simulate the Ares I five-segment booster.
Mock-ups of the upper stage, Orion crew module and launch abort system will be used to simulate the integrated spacecraft, according to NASA.
The flight test profile will closely follow the approximate flight conditions that will be experienced by the Ares and Orion vehicles through Mach 4.7 -- more than four times the speed of sound.
Approximately two minutes into flight and at about 130,000 feet, the launch vehicle's first stage will separate from the upper stage. The maximum altitude of the flight test will be about 150,000 feet, or 28 miles.
Aside from the scientific experiments, Ares could be at the center of whether or not NASA ends up continuing manned space flights. It has had significant technical and design challenges according to experts. First off it has had a weight problem and NASA needs to eliminate vibrations during launch and other challenges. NASA estimates that Ares I and its Orion system represent up to $49 billion of the over $97 billion estimated to be spent on the overall Constellation program through 2020.
The Review of United States Human Space Flight Plan Committee report delivered to the White House last week said of Constellation: The estimated cost of the Ares I launch vehicle development increased as NASA determined that the original plan to use the Space Shuttle main engines on the Ares I upper stage would be too costly. But the replacement engine had less thrust and inferior fuel economy, so the first-stage solid rockets had to be modified to provide more total impulse. This in turn contributed to a vibration phenomenon, the correction of which has yet to be fully demonstrated. This is the nature of complex development programs-with budgets that are far more likely to decrease than increase.
Complicating matters further, insofar as the Constellation Program is concerned, this Committee concluded that the Shuttle Program will almost inevitably extend into FY 2011 in order to fly the existing manifest and that there are strong arguments for the extension of the International Space Station for another five years beyond the existing plan. These actions, if implemented, place demands of another $1.1 billion and $13.7 billion, respectively, on the NASA budget. According to the report, NASA's fundamental conundrum is that within the current structure of the budget, NASA essentially has the resources either to build a major new system or to operate one, but not to do both.