Ares 1-X: The shape of things to come

Joining the media circus at Cape Canaveral for a NASA space shuttle may not have the glamour of the 1960s Project Mercury or Apollo era, but during the pre-dawn hours of Oct. 20, 2009 this writer was there and detected a buzz among reporters and television news crews at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida that was reminiscent of the early Space Age. Something was underway at the Cape that was big, really big. And we were there to witness it.

Despite uncertainty swirling around the space agency thanks to a whopping national deficit and a hopelessly unvisionary White House reminiscent of the Nixon and Carter eras, reporters filed aboard several yellow school buses for the short trip from NASA's media building to the mammoth Vehicle Assembly Building on the Cape's Merritt Island launch complex.

After enduring a national security vetting process, and later, U.S. Air Force bomb-sniffing dogs, this writer gathered with fellow science writers and news reporters to watch the dramatic 2 a.m. debut of the world's largest and newest rocket, the Ares 1-X.

The pencil-thin Ares creation lacks the familiar external rocket stabilizing fins. It is as tall as a 32-story building (that's eight school buses stacked end to end) and nearly 143 taller than the Space Shuttle stack-topping off at 327 feet, a few feet shorter than von Braun's Saturn-5 Moon rocket. The Ares test version before us was nearly identical to the crew-rated versions to come, in both size and weight-1.8 million pounds (as one NASA official told me, "Over five times the weight of the Statue of Liberty, minus the pedestal.")

Ares 1-X, which was successfully launched a week after rollout, made its debut Oct. 20 amid the glare of six piercing xenon searchlights and the deep rumble of the large-tracked Mobile Launch Platform vehicle, a reliable recycled tool from the Apollo and Space Shuttle eras. The big tractor hauled the rocket assembly to launch pad 39B, 4 miles away-and it did it at a snail-pace to help return Americans to the Moon. The 4-mile-long tractor trip lasted seven hours.

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