Ares 1-X: The shape of things to come

Ares is the rocket that will replace the Space Shuttle launcher and carry space explorers to the International Space Station and beyond. It is the major component of the new space transportation infrastructure under NASA's Constellation Program, a leaner, meaner 21st-century version of Apollo, but much more adaptable to various human space missions.

I was fortunate to stand watch over the new rocket alongside NASA's Steve Davis, deputy manager of the Ares 1-X flight test program. Davis had responsibilities for the design, development and integration of the test flight vehicle's first stage, avionics, and roll control systems. His "color commentary" during the rollout was insightful; his youthful space enthusiasm, despite the current turmoil in Washington, was refreshing.

"The 1-X effort includes teams from all over NASA," Davis said. "These teams are designing and developing vehicle hardware, evolving proven technologies, and testing components and systems. Their work builds on reliable Saturn and space shuttle propulsion elements as well as 50 years of NASA spaceflight experience and high-tech advances. And American industry will be involved with Constellation on many levels.

"When the Ares is ready to carry humans, it will have two missions: lofting up to six astronauts to the space station or up to four astronauts to Earth orbit to rendezvous with the yet-to-be built Ares-5 rocket and Altair lunar lander for missions to the Moon. The first crewed Earth-orbit flight of the new Orion spacecraft is planned for-we hope-2017," Davis said.

Davis said NASA is moving ahead with its plans to replace the shuttle with the Orion, the blunt-end capsule that will sit atop the Ares rocket. During the Ares 1-X test a dummy Orion, sporting an inert launch abort escape tower, helped turn the new rocket into a sleek white arrow.

Despite a few glitches, the Ares 1-X test Oct. 28 was a success. (Problems with the reusable first-stage booster parachutes, while not a program stopper, will need to be worked out before Ares goes into service.) Overall, and considering its computer development in less than three years, Ares was a "Yes!" moment for NASA. Unlike the old days, NASA's high-tech computer algorithms eliminate a lot of costly early flight-testing of hardware. But that's not say flight-testing isn't needed-it is still is a vital part of rocket science.

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