NASA didn't make a lot of headlines with its less than heart-stopping January announcement that it had completed its "crew launch vehicle system requirements review" for the new Ares I rocket. But buried in that bureaucratic gobbledygook was important news indeed news that promises big things for the years ahead. Ares I, NASA's first truly exciting booster since the days of the venerable Saturn V moonships, is the workhorse rocket that is scheduled to carry astronauts into orbit by 2014 and help return them to the moon by 2020.
Unlike a lot of NASA's gossamer plans remember the first President Bush's promise to have humans on Mars by 2019? this one seems like the real deal. The rocket is based on proved shuttle and Apollo engines, as is its bigger brother, the Ares V, which will launch the lunar lander and other heavy hardware needed for deep-space trips. The Ares I will be a two-stage rocket capable of carrying a 25-ton payload; the first stage will run on solid fuel, the second on liquid. (The I and V designations are an old-school homage to the Saturn I and Saturn V rockets of NASA's Apollo program.) The just completed systems review was the critical first step to the equally turgid-sounding design reviews now under way. After that, however, comes what NASA engineers call the cutting metal stage, and after that comes the first test launch of Ares I, in 2009. The few people still around who were paying attention in 1967 when the first unmanned Saturn V was launched know that they witnessed one of space exploration's game-changing events. The same kind of moment and the same extraordinary odysseys that followed may be poised to happen again.