An unmanned NASA rocket designed to help develop a new space taxi service to the moon streaked through the sky yesterday on a successful two-minute test flight.
The 327-foot (100-metre) Ares 1-X rocket, the world’s tallest, blasted off at 11:30 am EDT (1530 GMT) from a modified space shuttle launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida.
The slim white craft powered into the blue sky over Florida on a column of flame and smoke.
“That was just unbelievable, that was fantastic. I’ve just got tears in my eyes,”
Kennedy Space Centre Director Bob Cabana told the launch team
The launch was NASA’s first new vehicle since the space shuttle debuted in 1981.
Firing its motors for just over two minutes, the Ares 1-X rocket flew to an altitude of 28 miles (45 km) and reached a speed nearly five times that of sound.
It parachuted back down into the Atlantic Ocean and was to be retrieved by a NASA ship.
“The vehicle flew better than expected,” said mission manager Bob Ess. “We completely met all of our test objectives hugely successful.”
The new demo rocket is the centrepiece of a $445 million NASA program to verify designs for vehicles intended to replace the agency’s retiring space shuttles.
The space shuttles are due to be retired next year after six more missions to complete the space station.
In addition to ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station 225 miles (360 km) above Earth, the booster is intended to be part of a system to fly astronauts to the moon and other destinations in the solar system.
“Balancing a broomstick”
Ares 1-X’s motor was made by Alliant Techsystems Inc as part of a $1.8 billion Ares development contract for NASA.
Ares 1-X was outfitted with more than 700 sensors to monitor pressures, vibrations, temperatures and speeds as the rocket shot through the atmosphere. The modified shuttle booster is wider at its forward part than at its base and had a simulated Orion capsule perched on its front end.
“It’s like balancing a broomstick on the tip of your finger,” said deputy mission manager Jon Cowart.
Ares 1-X may end up being the only Ares series vehicle to fly.
Among the strategy options presented to President Barack Obama’s administration by an independent review panel was one proposing to scrap Ares 1 and hire commercial firms to taxi astronauts to the space station.
Instead, NASA would focus on developing a heavier-lift rocket needed to carry cargo and vehicles to the moon and other destinations beyond the station’s orbit.
NASA says the Ares 1-X test flight was important no matter what happened.
“What’s most critical is that we learn something,” said Jeff Hanley, who oversees NASA’s new exploration initiative known as Constellation.
“We have a design that will do the country service if it’s put into service,” he added.
Pic: Ares x-1 rocket