A Hold on the Way to the Moon

PROMONTORY, Box Elder County – Just as Mark Anderes reached “perilous night”, a breeze kicked up, stretching out the flag. At half staff honoring the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, the banner waved from the flagpole, rippling in front of gray-green hills, through the rest of the Anthem.

It was near noon Thursday at Alliant Techsystems’ test complex, and the first test firing of the huge lower stage of the Ares I rocket was scheduled for 1 p.m. The rocket is designed to carry Americans back to the moon.

A large signboard above the hundreds of spectators continued to count the minutes and seconds left before the planned ignition.

[ATK experts confer beside the giant nozzle of the Ares I first stage. Photo by Cory Bauman. For a gallery of images by blog photog Cory Bauman covering Thursday’s activities, CLICK HERE.]

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The stage, built by ATK, is 154 feet long and 12.2 feet in diameter. It links together five rocket motor segments, rather than the four segments of each Space Shuttle booster. A shuttle booster supplies 3.3 million pounds of thrust, while the Ares I first stage will deliver 3.6 million pounds, Mike Bloomfield, vice president and program manager for ATK’s Constellation Systems, Strategy and Business Development division, said earlier in the day.

Constellation is the name given to the projected next generation of crewed moon rockets. A second stage fueled by liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen is envisioned for Ares I. When both stages are connected, the rocket will tower 325 feet tall. The heavy-duty Ares V, which will use two Ares I first stages as boosters in addition to a central liquid-fuel motor, will haul lunar landers and other gear into orbit; its height will be 381 feet.

“This will be the first full-scale test” of the stage, Bloomfield added. Throughout the two-minute burn, 650 sensors were to check such factors as the amount of thrust delivered and acoustics, which would be a critical factor in how well the rocket performs.

Asked if he is confident that America will return to the moon, he replied, “I sure hope so. You know, we have a plan to go there. … So now we just need to execute the plan.” Safety is the first priority, he said.

Ken Jensen, ATK vice president for research, said, “This is a huge day for us. I’m a huge believer in Ares. … This is really the answer for our nation’s space program.”

Inside a large white tent, the crowds were jolly, digging into ice-filled coolers for bottled water. They posed for photographs in front of posters with slogans like “Ares I First Stage … Moving Forward.”

“There it is!” exclaimed an ATK employee, indicating the rocket, a white tube more than a mile away.

“Yeah!” said his friend.

“If it comes loose it’s coming this way,” joked the first man.

The motor segments, manufactured here, have lifted the space shuttle to the edge of the atmosphere many times. One of them was used on the first shuttle flight in 1981.

Michael A. Kahn, executive vice president of ATK Space Systems Group, noted that the flame shooting from the rocket will be about 4,500 degrees, but insulation should keep the outside casing at the temperature it was Thursday, awaiting the test.

According to Stephen Nolan, vice president of advanced systems for the company, a big mirror mounted behind the motor will allow photography of the ignition. That is so experts “can see the flame propagate,” he said. As soon as the flame reaches the mirror, 0.005 of a second after ignition, the device will be obliterated. The stand and concrete mounting will be blasted into bits on the mountainside. Under the torrid heat, sand carted in and spread behind the motor will fuse into glass.

Throughout the countdown, test control kept the public informed of progress via loudspeaker. “Evacuate forward bunker,” said an official. “Evacuating bunker,” came the answer.

Charlie Precourt, vice president and general manager of Space Launch Systems for ATK, said over the speakers, “As a former astronaut, I can tell you I’m very, very proud of the work” that the company and NASA’s Ares team are doing. The focus is on safety, he said, a “tenfold increase in safety.”

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At 60 seconds before the planned ignition, a faint siren wailed from the direction of the first stage. In addition to the many hundreds of people at the VIP viewpoint, hundreds or thousands more had driven to two public viewing sites besides the highway, Utah 83.

The countdown stopped at T-minus 20 seconds. An announcement came over the loudspeakers that test managers were concerned about an indication of low pressure in the hydraulics system that helps control the angle of the gigantic nozzle.

The hold continued. After long minutes in the intense sunlight, several reporters ambled to an ATK truck and hunched in the shade. Cars and trucks drove up the winding road toward the test stand. After an anxious wait, another announcement came: the test was scrubbed for the day.

Back inside an air-conditioned media center, four NASA and ATK experts prepared to answer questions. But shortly before the press conference was to start, they left the center and conferred outside. Trina Patterson, senior manager of media relations for ATK, said they were reviewing the latest information about the scrub.

When they reassembled before rows of media representatives, Alex Pristos, NASA Ares development officer, said, “We did see an anomaly at T-minus 20 seconds when our TVC system did not start up normally. We’re relaying information to our [space] shuttle team.”

TVC stands for the tilt vector control that allows the nozzle to point correctly. Two components, mounted at 90 degrees from each other and working independently, control the nozzle. One of these operated correctly but the other didn’t.

When indicators showed fuel wasn’t getting to that part of the TVC, the day’s test was canceled.

Investigators will search for the cause of the glitch. “It could be something simple, it could be something more complex, it may not have anything to do with the system itself,” Pristos said.

Patterson said the test probably will not be resumed before Tuesday.

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