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Nasa's 'stick of a rocket' - will it launch?

Jonathan Amos | 14:30 UK time, Thursday, 3 September 2009

I don't know if Nasa has launched scaffolding and ladders on a rocket before.

But when the Ares 1-X lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center in October, that's exactly what will be onboard.

Ares 1-X rocketIn recent days, I got a chance to inspect this stick of a rocket inside Kennedy's vast Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). I went to see it with British astronaut candidate Tim Peake.

We were particularly keen to look over this vehicle because it is the test launcher for the type of rocket that could one day send Tim into orbit.

It is huge - almost 100m high. It's three decades since anyone has built anything so tall (although I have to say it was nearly lost in the VAB, which gives you an idea of just how enormous that building really is!).

The mighty Saturn 5 Moon rocket would only have been 10m or so higher.

Our guide was Trent Smith, the vehicle's processing engineer and a man who is tremendously proud of the 1-X and the team that has put it together:

"To go from a piece of paper to a full-up stacked rocket in three years is pretty amazing."

The 1-X is a demonstrator for the Ares 1, the rocket Nasa is currently developing to launch its new crew carrier, Orion.

The 1-X will verify many design assumptions so that when the Ares 1 proper is built, the engineers can be confident it will perform as expected.

The demonstrator is the exact same size and shape as the Ares 1 will be, but there are significant differences.

The first stage is a four-segment, rather than the intended five-segment, solid rocket booster (SRB).

If the booster looks familiar it's because it's based on the SRBs that power the early flight phase of the space shuttle stack.

The top half of the 1-X is a dummy, however. In other words, what would be the second stage with the Orion capsule on top is not real.

Tim Peake standing outside the VABIt's all made from steel to give the correct weight but after separation, it will simply fall into the ocean and won't power on into orbit as the real upper-stage would do.

And that's where all that scaffolding and ladders can be found. The 1-X is laden with sensors - about 700 of them - and engineers needed to be able to clamber around inside the dummy upper-stage to be sure everything was in place.

Accelerometers, pressure transducers, thermo couples, calorimeters, radiometers, videos, even microphones - the Ares 1-X is crammed full of sensors.

The highest any portion of the rocket will get will be about 60km (200,000ft) - a tad short of what one might traditionally call "space". The maximum velocity attained will be about six times the speed of sound.

It will tell the Ares design team how a rocket of this shape, this weight, and this height actually flies. They've got a good idea from their computer models and wind-tunnel tests, but until they actually put some real hardware on the pad and ignite the motor - it's all just very intelligent guesswork.

Those who follow space matters closely, though, will know that the Ares programme within Nasa may be doomed.

A top-level panel led by former Lockheed Martin chairman and chief executive Norm Augustine is advising President Barack Obama on the various options for getting future US astronauts into space.

Graphic showing the Ares 1-X rocketThe full report won't be published for a couple of weeks but the tea leaves don't look good for Ares judging from the public meetings called to discuss the issues. Most of the options being suggested to the president contain no role for the Ares 1.

The departure from Nasa of the Ares programme chief, Steve Cook, is also being viewed as an ominous sign.

Many commentators now expect the Ares 1 to be scrapped in favour of rockets developed in the private sector or a launch system more heavily dependent on shuttle heritage.

So where does that leave the 1-X? Is there any point in flying the demonstrator if the Ares 1 is never going to be built? Questions we put to Trent Smith:

"We're here, it's stacked, it's built. What's it going to cost to go roll it out and push the button?
 
"You're going to get a lot of valuable data on rocket design. Even if you cancel Ares 1, you're still going to get valuable engineering data to make smart decisions about other vehicles.
 
"We've got a lot of really excited technicians, engineers and quality folks who are just raring to go."

My hunch - what do I know? - is that the launch will go ahead. In any case, a final decision on Ares may not come until after the proposed October launch date of the 1-X if President Obama needs some time to make his mind up on Nasa's future.

If the 1-X does launch, make sure you catch the roll-out of the vehicle from the VAB to the launch pad as well. It's going to make for quite a show just to see this super-tall stick held down by only four bolts trundle along on its mobile transporter.

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