The Oct. 19 rollout of NASA's new Ares 1-X test rocket at Cape Canaveral, Florida, was the first small step in a big leap to replace the aging space-shuttle fleet. And on Tuesday, Oct. 27, if all goes well, the Ares 1-X will be launched to test the performance of the solid-propellant rocket stack carrying its mockup of the Apollo-shaped Orion spacecraft and escape tower system.
This writer was invited to be one of NASA's press guests at the Ares 1-X rollout at Cape Canaveral. The pencil-thin rocket-nearly as tall as the old Saturn-V moon rocket-made a slow four-mile-long, motorized-crawler trip, from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the seaside launch complex 39B, in seven hours. News personnel and VIPs from around the world were scheduled to be in attendance to witness the historic rollout.
Here's why the 1-X rocket is so important to the future of America's human space program-
The Ares rocket is the keystone of NASA's new Constellation program; it will lift the piloted version of the Orion spacecraft, the vehicle that will transport astronauts to the space station and-someday-on to the Moon and Mars.
Right now, America's Moon plans are on indefinite hold thanks to the current administration's lack of a high-frontier vision coupled with its growing deficit crisis. Despite this writer's disappointment in seeing America's lunar plans delayed, at least the infrastructure for sustained human interplanetary exploration is finally being put in place-and that's a very positive step forward in leaving the confines of low Earth orbit.
But let's get back to this month's big activities at Cape Canaveral-
The Ares 1-X rocket stands more than 300 feet tall; it is a fragile looking thing but is, in fact, a powerful two-stage rocket. Ares is a modified five-segment, solid-rocket booster derived from the space shuttle.
Ares 1-X also has a cryogenic (frigid liquefied fuel) upper stage that is driven by a J-2X engine derived from the old Saturn rocket's upper stages. This is an ideal example of recycling proven technology. It's an investment of tax dollars in aerospace technology that will have real payoffs.