Ares I Ignites

PROMONTORY, Box Elder County — The world’s biggest solid-fuel rocket, the Ares I first stage, flashed into life, a furiously bright orange-white flame roaring and blazing for two minutes, 3.6 million pounds of thrust shaking the earth, its heat warming spectators more than a mile away, while broiling plumes of smoke and dust towered to the clouds.

Built by Alliant Techsystems in its nearby facility, the stage is 154 feet long and 12 feet in diameter. It delivered an astonishing 20 million horsepower through burning more than a million pounds of fuel.

[Thursday’s static test firing of the Ares I first stage was dramatic — photo by Cory Bauman. For a gallery of her views of the day’s action, CLICK HERE.]

The scene Thursday was ATK’s T-97 static test stand, a complex with test buildings (the side of one was painted with a huge American flag), the long, white, horizontally-anchored rocket, and dirt roads winding among brown foothills. Hundreds watched, felt, and heard the eruption from this press site and VIP viewing area, while an estimated 4,000 others experienced it from public viewing locations beside Utah 83.

Two weeks ago, the count had ticked down to T minus 20 seconds and then halted. The test was scrubbed that day. After exhaustive studies, the flaw turned out to be a momentary stutter in a 30-year-old computer board, a component used in making electronic reports during a static test like this, and not part of the rocket’s hardware.

Before the latest test, astronaut Jeff Ashby remarked, “We’ve all flown with pieces of this thing.” The reusable motor segments that made up the stage have powered many Space Shuttles flights, one of them the shuttle’s first in 1981.

But this configuration was different from the shuttle’s, whose twin boosters have four segments each. The Ares I first stage has five segments, a slightly larger nozzle opening, new insulation and liner, changes to the polybutadiene acrylonitrile propellant, and more thrust. It is designed as the bottom part of the Ares I rocket to take astronauts back to the moon — and beyond. A heavy lifter called Ares V, using two Ares I’s and other components, would carry the needed equipment into space, under plans announced in 2005.

But plans for the project, dubbed Constellation, are under stringent review. The U.S. Spaceflight Plans Committee says it can’t be done with the budget envisioned in 2005, when then-President George W. Bush announced it. New options under consideration include beefing up project funding by $3 billion a year, developing an “Ares Lite” version of the lifter, extending the lives of the International Space Station and the shuttle, turning more to private industry, and skipping the moon in favor of going first to targets like the moons of Mars and the asteroids. The Obama administration has not yet decided on an option.

Bruce Tiller, NASA’s deputy project manager for the Ares I First Stage, Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., was focused Thursday’s test, not policy. “This is the first of seven tests we’re going to do,” he told Nightly News.

Four will focus on development and the others are to be qualification tests to prove the technology. The stage ignited here is called “DM-1″ for the first development motor.

This test was to check ballistics, “the performance we’ll get from the vehicle,” Tiller said. Among 650 parameters monitored, other aspects checked are the new insulation inside the motor case and the larger nozzle.

An innovation was a gigantic belt to cinch in the stage’s midriff sag. Loaded with 1.37 millions of pounds of propellant, the rocket could sag about eight inches; the mid-stand support reduces the sag to three to five inches, he said. Standing upright for a flight, Ares I won’t droop.

Tiller promised the new rocket will be the safest that humans have ever flown.

Mike Kahn, executive vice president of ATK Space Systems Group, said the rocket has as much thrust as ten 747 airliners. “It’s exciting for the engineers … to see the results of their hard work,” he said.

Speaking of the glitch in late August, ATK’s vice president and program manager for the Constellation System, Mike Bloomfield, smiled and said that this time, “Everything’s all worked out. We found the culprit.”

Charlie Precourt, ATK vice president and general manager of Space Launch Systems, noted that the Ares I-X will fly around the end of next month. The test rocket is already assembled at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, with four segments and a dummy fifth, as well as simulations of other components.

Asked if the Ares I system could be used for other goals mentioned in the presidential review, Precourt said, “Absolutely.” Anytime humans need to go into low Earth orbit without a great deal of cargo, Ares I is the way to go.

If an option is chosen in which industry would do more of the exploration, he said, NASA can “provide the product of this program.”

Following the test, Alex Priskos, manager of the NASA Ares I Development Office in Huntsville, told a news conference, “Boy, it’s a pleasure to be here. … After witnessing what we just saw, it’s easy to become speechless.”

The test went well, according to the first results. “We got the test we wanted to get,” he said. “We have started to get in data.

“What we got is very, very preliminary, but what I can tell you, it’s absolutely consistent with what we thought we would get. … We are very pleased, the data looks great.” He said the Constellation program is “right on track,” and the aim is to provide the best and most reliable space vehicle for the country.

Precourt called the test a “great milestone for all of us.” The engineers are ecstatic, he added.

“We’re all smiles here.”

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