On to the Moon!

PROMONTORY, Box Elder County — Sen. Orrin Hatch summed it up even before ATK’s test firing began Tuesday morning: he isn’t against private firms competing in the work to put humans into space, but there has been only one such launch so far and it was “primitive compared with what you’re going to see here today.”

A half-moon hung in the clear azure air above ATK’s solid rocket test facility, located about 20 miles northwest of Corinne. The moon seemed somehow ironic, as this was an intended target of the Ares I rocket, the first stage of which was about to be tested; Ares and the whole Constellation program, designed to return Americans to the moon and then to land astronauts on Mars, is under attack by the Obama administration.

The administration has been pushing to engage private firms in the effort, though many in Congress are fighting to continue funding Constellation. Hatch, R-Utah, speaking at an impromptu press conference here, said the program is “very, very important,” and that “we’ve been in a massive effort” to keep it funded.

He added that he doesn’t want to see this country dependent upon Russia to get its astronauts into space.

“I think we’re going to continue our manned space program,” he replied to a question by Nightly News. “This is the quintessential solid rocket motor facility in the world,” and government officials are “learning that this effort here is absolutely crucial to our space program ….

“I hope this administration will see the light on this.” Because of efforts on the congressional budget process, Hatch said, “we’ve come a long way from where the administration was originally.”

At T-minus-one minute, a long siren began to wail. Some among the 470 guests at the VIP viewing facility shielded their eyes from the sun. The white rocket tube lay in a bowl-like formation, tiny in the distance. When the countdown on the loudspeaker reached “Fire!” a ball of white-hot flame shot from the rocket motor’s nozzle, immediately lancing into a long white and yellow flame. It shot from the tube like water blasting from a fire hose.

[The Ares I first-stage motor, DM-2, fires about 9:25 a.m. Tuesday. Photo by Joe Bauman]

Seconds later the sound hit the watchers, a loud crackling roar, and smoke and dust boiled up from the hillside. It curled around like a gigantic dark croissant, the curved flame scorching furiously beneath. After two minutes, five seconds, the flame died to a small yellow-red ball and then was extinguished. The crowd erupted into applause and cheers. Vast new gray clouds, gray, black and white, continued to boil up hundreds of feet into the atmosphere.

An announcer on the loudspeaker said the test of DM-3 is scheduled for September 2011.

This rocket motor was designated DM-2, meaning it was the second Ares development motor. Earlier an engineering motor was fired, while the first full-scale, full-duration test of the Ares I first stage took place here on Sept. 10, 2009.

Each test cost about $75 million and so far “we’ve expended about $1 billion” on developing the stage, said Alex Priskos, manager of the Ares I First Stage project at Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

The DM-2 was “the largest and most powerful solid rocket motor designed for flight,” says a NASA press release. It was cooled to 43 degrees Fahrenheit before it was fired in a test of its ability to perform under various conditions, and the flame reached 5,600 degrees. Measuring 154 feet long and 12 feet in diameter, the motor delivered up to 3.6 million pounds of thrust.

Kent V. Rominger, vice president, Test and Research Operations, ATK Aerospace Systems Group, said that with 1.4 million pounds of propellant, the motor needed a lot of cooling to get to test temperature. “Chillers” have been working since July 6 to reduce the temperature in the massive rocket. Eventually Ares should be certified to launch when the air is between 40 and 90 degrees.

“There’s nothing better for an engineer than to see an amazing test like this, Doug Cooke, NASA associate administrator based in Washington, D.C., said in a post-test news conference. “It’s the culmination of a lot of good design work.” Early results indicate it was “an excellent and successful test,” he added.

[NASA’s Doug Cooke. Photo by Joe Bauman]

Marveling at the amount of thrust delivered, Cooke said, “Just incredible.”

Speaking of the president’s plans and finance measures in the House and Senate, Cooke added, “Everybody’s interested in the future exploration of space,” including going beyond low-Earth orbit.

[Alex Priskos, manager of the Ares I First Stage project. Photo by Joe Bauman]

“We got a chance here in the last hour to look at the preliminary data,” said Priskos, “and it looks absolutely excellent. …

“We captured all the data we were after and we’re looking very much forward to being able to further assess it.”

Priskos earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, and his master’s from Utah State University, Logan.

Charlie Precourt, vice president and general manager, Space Launch Systems, ATK Aerospace Systems Group, said this was a proud day for the company. The former astronaut flew into space four times, twice as commander, for a total of more than 930 hours.

Precourt added that the test showed how well the NASA and ATK team “stay focused on their primary objectives” despite uncertainties about the future of the Constellation program.
“I would second that,” said Cooke. “A test like this shows the dedication they all have.”

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