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Ares managers say October test flight should go on

Posted: August 23, 2009

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Managers in charge of an October flight test of NASA's new Ares rocket defended the merits of the $350 million launch Sunday, telling reporters the demo provides valuable experience for engineers, no matter what booster the agency uses to replace the retiring space shuttle.

The fully stacked Ares 1-X rocket stands inside the Vehicle Assembly Building last week. Credit: NASA/Jack Pfaller
"We have a very high confidence level that Ares 1-X is germane to NASA, period," said Bob Ess, the flight's mission manager. "No caveats."

The Ares 1-X vehicle, a 327-foot-tall rocket that nearly reaches the rafters of the mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building, is undergoing final checks before its scheduled Oct. 31 launch.

"It is something that we haven't done in 30 years. It has been an incredible learning opportunity for us to do something different than shuttle," Ess said.

The two-minute test flight will give designers of the Ares 1 rocket crucial data about the launcher's flight characteristics, according to NASA.

But the Ares 1 rocket, part of NASA's plan to return humans to the moon, is under the gun from a blue-ribbon presidential panel appointed by the White House to review the future of human space flight.

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The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, chaired by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine, is putting the final touches on a report to be submitted to the Obama administration by the end of this month.

The report will present several options to NASA and White House leadership, most of which cancel the Ares 1 rocket in favor of commercial crew delivery or continued shuttle operations.

Committee members have said the Constellation program, including the Ares 1, is not attainable in its current form under NASA's projected budget.

A decision by the White House is expected later this year.

The potential scrapping of the Ares 1 has led some to question the need for the Ares 1-X test, but officials maintained the flight has far-reaching objectives relevant to NASA's future.

"This teaches us a whole lot about how we model launch vehicles, not (just) Ares 1 launch vehicles, but launch vehicles. When we go from computer analysis programs, which we consider to be state-of-the-art, and then we supplement that with either a wind tunnel test or a structural test, the one thing that's missing flight data," Ess said.

"Understanding how we can improve our modeling tools for an Ares 1 or an Ares 5, or any launch vehicle, is really the whole key of 1-X, and it has been since the beginning."

The Ares 1-X has received no direction to halt work from senior NASA officials.

"Someone way above our pay grade can shut us down at their discretion, but we've got no direction or indication that we are not going to fly this rocket," Jon Cowart, Ares 1-X deputy mission manager, said in an interview earlier this month.

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Most of the test flight's $350 million price has already been spent.

"There's almost nothing in front of us," Ess said.

But officials acknowledged the committee's work is palpable.

"Certainly in the background is the Augustine Commission and where NASA is headed," Ess said. "I'll admit that is a distraction. You can't get away from it. It's everywhere."

Ess said his managers are trying to maintain the focus of the roughly 250 workers on the project.

"Our team is totally focused on this rocket and totally committed. The Augustine Commission and NASA Administrator will do their thing and then make a decision. We're going to let them to do that," Ess said.

More than 700 sensors scattered throughout the 1.8 million-pound rocket will gather detailed readings of temperatures, pressures, acceleration and other data points during the launch.

"To get these 700 sensors for data is something that engineers have been screaming for us to go do. It really applies to whatever class of launch vehicles you want to go work," Ess said.

Technicians finished stacking the slender booster Aug. 13, wrapping up a month of lift operations inside the VAB.

"Since we stacked the vehicle, morale is at an all-time high. This is superb. When you see this rocket, you'll understand what I'm talking about. This is a monster," Ess said.

The rocket includes a stock four-segment solid rocket booster from the shuttle program, a simulated fifth segment of the first stage, a dummy second stage, and a mock Orion capsule, where the crew would be seated for liftoff during a real launch.