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.
Oct. 27's launch target altitude won't be low Earth orbit. Instead, the rocket will peak at 130,000 feet, on the edge of space, zooming at 3,300 MPH,m while the first stage will zoom on to its top altitude of 150,000 feet.
From peak altitude, the first-stage will fall back to Earth buoyed by parachutes; a NASA ship located 144 miles east of Cape Canaveral will retrieve it. This is the same vessel that has been used to retrieve the shuttle's burned out solid-rocket boosters to be reused.
Here's what to watch out for: Separation of the Ares 1-X's first-stage on Oct. 27 will be the key event that will decide the ultimate success of this $350 million test flight. (The mockup upper stage and Orion spacecraft are less important; they will fall back into the ocean and not be retrieved.)
You can watch the exciting live launch of Ares 1-X at 8 a.m., Oct. 27, on NASA-TV. NASA-TV is available by most cable and satellite television providers or you can watch it for free online at www.nasa.gov/multimedia\Nasatv/index.html.
What's in the Sky: The planets Mercury, Venus and Saturn are staggered along the imaginary line of the ecliptic Oct. 24. Look in the east after 7 p.m. fro this trio. The line of the ecliptic slices through the constellation Virgo.
Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., is a former NASA science writer. He is a member of the NASA-JPL Solar System Ambassador program in Vermont.