Billing it the “First Flight of a New Era,” NASA successfully test-launched the “Ares I – X” (experimental version) rocket minutes ago following multiple delays. The 327-foot-high spacecraft (world’s tallest) is a key component of NASA’s new “Constellation” rocket systems, set to replace the ageing Space Shuttle (launch videos posted below).
The six-minute flight from Cape Canaveral follows up successful tests of the rocket engines last September in the Utah desert (see Sep 11 blog below). In today’s launch, the vehicle reached a height of more than 150,000 feet and then splashed down in the Atlantic Ocean about 150 miles down-range from the Cape. Scientists are collecting data from the first two minutes of the flight NASA says is key to moving the $3 billion program forward.
When fully operational, the Constellation program includes the two-stage Ares I rocket, designed to lift an “Orion” crew capsule perched atop into space. Astronauts could then either dock at the International Space Station or rendezvous with a second “Ares V” rocket, which would carry necessary supplies for a manned flight to the moon, Mars, or beyond. The Orion crew capsule returns to earth using parachutes and an ocean splashdown not unlike the Apollo capsules of the early 70s.
Success of the Constellation program is critical. The space shuttle fleet is planned to be retired next year, forcing US astronauts to hitch a ride with the Russians to service the International Space Station. As it is, only weeks ago a government audit questioned the viability of the entire program, given NASA’s projected budget. The commissions conclusions have already all but killed expectations to land on the moon by 2020 (see Jul 30 and Aug 14 blogs below).
With the success of this launch, NASA hopes to keep alive its vision for manned flights into deep space beyond the earth’s orbit.
Here is the actual launch:
And here is a NASA simulation of the flight: