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Amid uncertainty, NASA plans for Ares 1-X test flight
Posted: December 21, 2008

As the incoming Obama administration considers whether to accelerate development of the Ares 1 rocket that will replace the space shuttle - or possibly change course and switch to a different system or even extend shuttle operations - NASA is pressing ahead with plans to launch a critical sub-orbital test flight to show off the new rocket and collect valuable engineering data.

An artist's concept of Ares 1-X. Credit: NASA
The goals of the unmanned Ares 1-X mission are to help engineers resolve questions about launch vibration, roll control, aerodynamic forces and thermal effects, as well as test stage separation systems and recovery of the spent first stage using new 150-foot-wide parachutes.

The flight also will serve as a pathfinder for Kennedy Space Center engineers and technicians modifying facilities and developing new processing procedures after nearly four decades of shuttle operations.

Equally important, perhaps, the test flight will give American taxpayers their first real glimpse of the new Constellation program and the towering, slender rocket intended to replace the space shuttle after it is retired in 2010.

"One test is worth a thousand expert opinions," said Jon Cowart, a ground systems manager at the Kennedy Space Center. "It's brand new, it's a long, thin rocket. We want to make sure we can guide this thing. Balance a broomstick on the end of your finger, you'll get some idea of what we're dealing with here."

Because the unmanned test rocket features a dummy upper stage and a less-powerful version of the shuttle-heritage solid-fuel first stage intended for the eventual manned rocket, some space insiders say the $330 million test flight is little more than an expensive show.

But don't try telling that to the managers, engineers and technicians busy building the rocket and modifying the Kennedy Space Center's launch processing infrastructure to support it.

"It's showing ... the next rocket's coming, we're real serious about putting something together and being able to get back to the moon and to Mars," said Carol Scott, deputy mission manager for the Ares 1-X project at Kennedy. "While everybody says 'this is a show,' it is not a show.

"We have gone through PDRs, preliminary design reviews, for a new vehicle. We are telling the long-term vehicle, hey, here are the lessons we've learned, this is the stuff you've got to have solved. What all the other folks don't realize is, this rocket here, the first test objective is flying the rocket, you know, are we going to be able to control it?

"The other one is validating those models, making sure we actually fly what we predicted we can fly," Scott said. "Ares needs to know when they put their models together and they make their predictions that this rocket is going to fly the way they want it to fly. That gives you huge confidence when you're putting this rocket together. So it's a big deal to get that piece of data."

Jeff Hanley, Constellation program manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, said critics "grousing about (the test flight) are misinformed."

"I would remind folks about how many flight tests did Apollo do, and all the launches that preceded the first crewed Mercury, Gemini and Apollo flights," Hanley said in an interview. "There was a considerable amount of unmanned testing. And the very first Apollo didn't look anything like the Saturn 5.

"In this case, we're trying to fly something that is dynamically similar. We have the power of the computer today to do a lot of the testing and simulation under various conditions that the Apollo team didn't have. And so, that's to our benefit, that means we don't have to have as robust a flight test program, we can actually do some of that, at least, in the computer. But we need to anchor it in reality and that's what 1-X is all about."

The ground-shaking test flight, currently scheduled for launch in mid July, will only last a few minutes. But engineers are counting on it to generate the data they need to make sure they understand the flight environment and the forces that will be acting on the real rocket before the design is locked down in a critical design review scheduled for early 2010.

"It's a flight whose purpose is to validate the computer models, it doesn't have to be exactly like Ares 1," said NASA Administrator Mike Griffin. "It has to be close, but what it has to do is show that the analysis we're doing, the predictions we make, match what's going on in the real world. And it will do that."

The Constellation program was born in the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster. The accident review board recommended that if NASA chose to fly the shuttle past 2010, the agency should re-certify the spacecraft. Re-certification would have required re-examining the engineering rationale that went into every aspect of the shuttle's design to identify areas that needed improvements to boost safety.

Instead, the Bush administration decided in January 2004 to finish the international space station and to retire the shuttle in 2010. At the same time, NASA was told to begin development of a replacement system that could ferry astronauts to and from the space station and eventually, on to the moon, a system that would be safer and less expensive to operate than the shuttle. The long-range goal is establishment of Antarctica-type lunar research stations where astronauts can live and work for months at a time.

The Constellation program is a radical departure from the world of shuttle operations. Instead of one rocket designed to carry astronauts and heavy payloads, two rockets are now envisioned: the manned Ares 1, designed to boost Apollo-like Orion crew capsules to low-Earth orbit; and the unmanned Ares 5, a huge heavy lift rocket that will carry a four-person lunar lander into space.

NASA will modify its two shuttle launch pads and the cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building at the Kennedy Space Center to assemble and launch the new rockets. For a moon shot, the Ares 5 will be launched from one pad, followed a few hours later by launch of the crew in an Orion capsule atop an Ares 1.

After linking up in low-Earth orbit, the Ares 5 upper stage will propel the Altair lunar lander and astronauts in the attached Orion capsule to the moon. The entire crew will descend to the lunar surface in the lander and, when its mission is complete, blast off, rendezvous with the orbiting Orion capsule and return to Earth for an ocean splashdown reminiscent of the Apollo program.

The Bush administration did not give NASA much in the way of additional funding to pay for initial Constellation development and the agency has been forced to cut back in other areas to kick start the new program. After station assembly is complete and the shuttle is retired in 2010, NASA plans to divert more than $4 billion a year into Constellation that currently goes into shuttle and station operations.

But given the lack of funding up front, NASA will not be ready to begin initial operations with Ares 1 until late 2014 or early 2015 at best. During the five-year gap between the end of shuttle operations and the debut of Ares 1/Orion, NASA will be forced to buy seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry U.S. and international astronauts to and from the space station.

During the presidential campaign, President-elect Barack Obama promised to look into adding one or more shuttle flights and spending additional money to reduce the gap between shuttle and Ares operations. Anticipating questions from the new administration, NASA has conducted studies to find out what would be required to fly additional shuttle flights or stretch out the current schedule to ease reliance on the Russians for space station crew rotation flights.

NASA also has conducted an analysis of options for accelerating Ares/Orion development, but the agency has not yet revealed what could be done or how much it might cost. An Obama transition team currently is reviewing shuttle operations, the Constellation architecture and alternatives.

"The role of the agency review teams is not to make recommendations on any of the issues they are reviewing," said Nick Shapiro, a transition team spokesman. "They are fact finding and preparing the full range of options for consideration by the incoming appointees."

Almost from the beginning, critics have railed against the Constellation architecture. Some believe NASA should look into modifying heavy lift Atlas or Delta rockets - evolved expendable launch vehicles, or EELVs - for manned flights. Others believe it makes more sense to eliminate the Ares 1, which requires development of a new five-segment solid-fuel booster, and instead rely on different versions of a single large rocket, using current four-segment shuttle boosters, to launch crew and cargo.

Griffin, brought in by the Bush administration to oversee the shuttle retirement and the new moon program, has made no secret of his belief that a switch away from the current Ares 1/Ares 5 architecture would drive up costs, increase the current five-year gap between the end of the shuttle and the debut of its replacement and reduce the scope of planned lunar exploration.

That argument doesn't sit well with critics who point to development problems with the Ares 1 rocket, fueling an on-going internet debate that "has been surprising, amusing and irritating at different times to me," Griffin told CBS News in a recent interview.

"I don't get it. The development project is going very well. Anyone who has been part of any aerospace development project can cite comparable examples at the same stage where things were in much more difficulty than we are with Ares 1. There's actually no significant difficulty with the program at all. The little nits that come up, we've got work-arounds for. It's very solid from a technical point of view. I have taken pains to examine those issues myself, I think that's where I do add value as an administrator, I am knowledgeable of these issues. Politics may be difficult for me, but rocketry's not. And the vehicle and the plan and the program are in solid shape. So I don't get it.

"I think it may be due to the fact that everybody likes to play space architect," he said. "We get an enormous amount of input from people who think that NASA would be better if we would use this technical approach rather than that technical approach. And the truth is, some of them would work. But just because they would work, doesn't mean the approach we've chosen won't. At some point, you have to make a selection and go. And our selection was based first and foremost on crew safety and second on economics. And that's what drove us in the direction we are in and we're still happy with it."

A certain amount of friction apparently has developed between Griffin, a straight-talking rocket scientist who flies his own plane, holds five master's degrees and a doctorate in aerospace engineering, and Obama transition team members who served in the Clinton era and whose academic backgrounds are less technical.

Sources say the transition team has asked about EELVs as a Constellation alternative and expressed concern about Griffin allegedly telling NASA civil servants and contractors not to freely discuss Constellation issues and alternatives with the Obama team.

Reliable NASA sources said no such directions were ever issued and checks with NASA's major contractors found no evidence to the contrary; company representatives adamantly denied any such guidance from Griffin or any of his representatives.

"That's ludicrous," one company official told CBS News.

Griffin insists that any switch to EELVs would be a major mistake. Boeing's Delta 4, for example, could be pressed into service launching a smaller Orion-type capsule to low-Earth orbit, but he said that would require major modifications and development of a new abort system. In addition, the booster would have to be "man-rated," a costly process designed to maximize safety margins.

Even if the Obama administration ordered a change of course, United Launch Alliance, the new Boeing-Lockheed Martin partnership that builds and launches Delta and Atlas rockets, might have problems supporting a major new initiative.

"DOD (Department of Defense) faces numerous uncertainties in the EELV program and ULA transition related to the reliability of the launch vehicles, the amount of work remaining in the ULA transition, and program budget decisions based on preliminary data," the Government Accountability Office study said in a September report.

"I'm not knocking the EELVs," Griffin said in a recent interview. "I've flown payloads that I personally was close to on both vehicles. I'm not knocking EELVs at all, they're great vehicles. What I have tried to say is that if we're designing an architecture capable of taking people back to the moon, and that's what our enabling legislation requires us to do, then the EELVs don't serve well in that role.

"Either we would have to downgrade our requirements enormously, and I don't know how to do that, or we would have to upgrade the EELVs, In which case, they would no longer be existing EELVs, we've got a new vehicle family. So that path doesn't work for us in terms of meeting the requirements for a human lunar return."

Regardless of how the transition team's fact finding plays out, presidential-level decisions will be needed in the next few months to avoid additional costs and delays. Among the space-related issues requiring immediate attention:

  • Whether to extend shuttle operations with one or more additional flights. A decision is needed within the next few months, managers say, to keep hardware deliveries stay on track.

  • Obtaining long-term funding to pay the Russians for seats on Soyuz spacecraft during the gap when a U.S. launch vehicle is unavailable. As it now stands, U.S., European, Canadian and Japanese astronauts only have confirmed seats on Soyuz ferry craft through the spring of 2013.

  • Deciding how long to support space station operations in general. NASA's current budget projections include no money for station operations past 2015, an issue that concerns the space agency and its international partners.

  • Deciding whether to stick with the Constellation program, whether to provide additional money to accelerate development of the Ares 1 or whether to switch to a different architecture.

"A decision that must be made soon whether to retire the space shuttle in 2010, as currently planned, or to extend its life in view of limited options for supporting the international space station," the GAO wrote in a report listing "urgent issues" facing the incoming administration. "However, extending the shuttle could also have significant consequences on the future direction of human spaceflight for the United States. Specifically, NASA is counting on the retirement of the shuttle to free up resources to pursue a new generation of space flight vehicles that is anticipated to come online in 2015."

"According to NASA, reversing current plans and keeping the shuttle flying past 2010 would cost $2.5 billion to $4 billion per year," the GAO wrote. "On the other hand, the new administration may well decide to extend the shuttle and defer development of new transportation vehicles in light of budgetary constraints."

Obama has expressed support for NASA on several occasions and the space agency has been invited to participate in the inauguration parade. But as of this writing, Obama has not indicated whether he will ask Griffin to stay on or whether a replacement will be brought in, perhaps to chart a different course. In the meantime, NASA is pressing ahead with Constellation and plans for a dramatic first test flight next year.

"We will have a new administration in place and together with Congress, they will set our path for the coming years," Doug Cooke, deputy associate administrator of NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, told reporters during an end-of-year teleconference. "We don't know yet exactly what that will be or if there are changes to what we're doing. But of course, we'll adapt and support (their) direction."

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