Tuesday, October 27, 2009

NASA's Ares 1-X Rocket Waits...

NASA's Ares 1-X rocket, intended as part of the replacement for its aging space shuttles, sat patiently on the launch pad today, waiting for its first test flight.

It went nowhere. Controllers finally scrubbed the launch for today after waiting more than three hours for acceptable weather. They worried that the rocket, rising through Florida storm clouds, might generate dangerous amounts of static electricity as it climbed into the sky.

"We're not going to be go for today," said one controller over a radio loop. "You gave it a good shot," came the answer. They decided to try again for Wednesday morning -- though, as launch control's voice, George Diller, put it, "The weather for tomorrow is better but not great."

NASA set modest goals for this first test flight. The Ares' first stage, firing for two minutes, would only lift the rocket about 30 miles over the Atlantic ocean. The rest of the rocket, including its bulbous second stage, was made of mockup parts. It was a comedy of errors this morning, as the 300-foot-tall rocket sat on pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, waiting to go.

Launch was originally scheduled for 8:00 a.m. ET, but that time came and went when a protective cover on the nose of the rocket wouldn't come off. They reset the clock for 8:30 a.m., then 9:24, then 9:44, then 9:54, then 10:54, then 11:04, then 11:19, but clouds, or winds, or a passing cargo ship near the oceanside launch pad got in the way each time.

Son of Shuttle

The one thing that appeared to be working properly was the rocket itself -- no surprise, since, in fact, it's an updated version of the solid rocket boosters one sees strapped to each side of a space shuttle's orange fuel tank. The boosters have been used since 1981. One failed, tragically, causing the Challenger explosion in 1986, but they have been heavily modified since then.

The Ares rocket, standing pencil-thin on the launch pad, was meant to be simpler, cheaper and more reliable than the shuttles. If it ever carries astronauts, they will be in a squat cone-shape Orion capsule on top of the rocket -- considered safer than the shuttles, which are attached to the side of their external tanks, and have often been hit by debris falling from the tanks during launch. The 2003 Columbia tragedy was believed caused by foam from the fuel tank, coming off and damaging the shuttle's wing.

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