The Ares Liftoff: Learning from Space Shuttle Mistakes

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John Raoux / AP

The Ares I-X test rocket lifts off at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

With the future of the space agency up in the air, NASA can certainly use the good p.r. that will flow from Wednesday's picture-perfect test launch of its Ares I-X prototype rocket, which is being designed to replace the aging space shuttle and ignite a new era in human space exploration. Mission managers took quick advantage of changing weather conditions to blast the rocket through a small hole in upper-level clouds that passed briefly over Launch Pad 39B.

Pencil-thin and taller than any other working rocket in the world, Ares I-X — a simulated version of what the Ares I and its Orion crew capsule will look like; for testing purposes, it's made up mostly of spare shuttle parts and a mock segments — lifted off at 11:30 a.m. The rocket's first and upper stages separated on schedule, approximately two minutes into the flight. And early indications are that the more than 700 onboard sensors did their job by streaming back to Earth a treasure trove of data to validate Ares computer models, information to be used in tweaking the final design. Ares I-X got off the ground just 30 minutes before the launch window closed for the second day in a row.

The lead-up to the launch had already produced a YouTube moment. On Tuesday, in the minutes before the expected takeoff, engineers were scheduled to pull on a lanyard to yank off a little red sock protecting a probe atop the rocket's nose. The yank cleared the probe, but the sock caught on something at the top of the rocket, something an amused NASA spokesman later insisted hadn't occurred in 500 practice runs. It took nine minutes of mostly close-up, viral-video-quality tugging before the dangling sock released, even as engineers debated whether the snafu amounted to a launch-canceling problem.

Wednesday's launch marked the first time in more than 40 years that NASA has tested a prototype of a new rocket system to take passengers beyond Earth orbit. Ares I is part of a family of new rockets in NASA's Constellation program, which was propelled by former President George W. Bush's 2005 space initiative to go to Mars or back to the moon. Ares would be equipped to fill in for the aging space shuttle — which is planned for retirement in 2010, although scheduled shuttle flights are likely to extend into 2011 — on missions to the International Space Station.

Regardless of the success of the $445 million flight test, the significance of the 327-ft. rocket is uncertain. A report delivered to the White House on Oct. 22 from the Human Space Flights Plan Committee said the Constellation program's goals were underfunded. The committee, headed by Norman Augustine, retired chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp., concluded that NASA needs another $3 billion a year to pursue meaningful human space exploration beyond low Earth orbit. Facing a $1.4 trillion federal deficit, even NASA's most ardent supporters in Congress, who represent some of the 60,000 jobs associated with the agency, acknowledge that additional funding will be hard to come by.

Alternatives offered up by the Augustine committee include stimulating a competitive commercial space industry in hopes that it might eventually result in lower launch costs. In deciding which direction to go, the Augustine committee warned of "perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources."

That ground was covered by earlier Administrations, from which sprang the inherently dangerous design of the space shuttle in the 1970s. Budget cuts and compromises led to the critical mistake of designing the shuttle to fly horizontally but launch vertically, leaving the ship helpless and without any abort option right after launch if something went wrong.

The Ares, with its Orion capsule sitting atop a rocket, returns NASA to the Apollo model, which went into retirement in the 1970s having never lost a capsule crew in flight. (The program did have its disasters, though: the Apollo 1 crew perished in a launch-pad fire and Apollo 13 suffered an oxygen-tank explosion and power failure on its way to the moon.) Shaped like the Apollo capsule but three times larger, the Orion can be reused up to 10 times. The Ares I and V, vertically stacked launch vehicles, make use of reusable solid rocket boosters.

The Ares' Orion crew capsule includes a launch abort system, which is scheduled to undergo the first of three tests next year. The abort system involves three separate motors to pull the capsule away from the rocket, to provide directional control and to separate and jettison the entire launch abort system so the capsule can parachute back to Earth.