For the first time in more than 50 years, NASA lacks a program to launch explorers into space. And, more to the point just now, to get them back.
[Thursday’s static test firing of ATK’s next generation booster at Promontory, Box Elder County. Photo by Joe Bauman]
Astronauts Ron Garan and Mike Fossum are temporarily stuck on the International Space Station because a Russian Progress supply rocket — similar to the Soyuz vehicle that taxies our astronauts to and from the station — failed at launch on Aug. 24. Garan, originally ticketed to return on Sept. 8, gets a ride home on Sept. 15 with two Russian cosmonauts. Fossum is to return in November.
By no coincidence, Russia has increased the price for the U.S. space tourists, from $55.8 million each round-trip to $62.7million, according to news reports. But that was before the Progress mishap; maybe the price will ratchet up another few tens of millions to pay for whatever safety modifications are needed.
The now-mothballed shuttles that once serviced the space station used two solid-fuel ATK boosters built in Utah, each consisting of four segments, for the initial leap toward space. After the boosters cut out and dropped away, the liquid-fueled main shuttle engine took over.
The shuttle phase-out was not intended to be the end of our crewed space program. A new rocket called Ares I would have a five-segment ATK first stage, a liquid-fueled second stage and a crew compartment to carry astronauts.
The Ares V sister ship, an unmanned supply vessel, would have required two ATK boosters and a liquid-fuel engine. Together, the ships were dubbed “Constellation,” and for five years taxpayers paid $9 billion toward their development. Constellation was envisioned as laying the groundwork for a return to the moon, development of a moon base, and possibly the human exploration of Mars.
But early in 2010, the Obama administration cancelled Constellation. The alternative cited was for private companies to develop their own spaceships.
One more irony: on Tuesday NASA released views taken by a robotic spacecraft, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, of moon landing sites, those of Apollo 12, 14 and 17. Cameras of this little satellite of the moon peered down at landers, astronaut footprints, lunar rover tracks and even a rover itself. From 13 miles above the surface it photographed soil where Americans once walked, collected samples and conducted scientific experiments.
Today the world’s most powerful rocket, a five-segment motor, underwent a static test at ATK’s Promontory, Box Elder County, facility. A couple of years ago it would have been called the first stage of the Ares I moon rocket. Now it’s dubbed the “next generation solid rocket motor.”
[ATK officials and visitors take in the immense rocket shortly before it was test-fired Thursday afternoon. Photo by Joe Bauman]
This was the third static test of the five-segment motor, which is 12 feet in diameter and 154 feet long. The test was termed Development Motor (DM-3). The first was conducted at a normal temperature; for the next, in August 2010, the propellant was cooled to about 42 degrees, and the third was carried out with the fuel at 90 degrees. This qualifies the motor to fly under any likely launch-pad conditions.
[ATK technicians at the nose of the rocket motor Thursday, shortly before it was tested. Photo by Joe Bauman]
The gigantic rocket tube lies horizontal, abutting a massive cement block that will hold it steady. At 2:05 p.m., a searing white-red flame jets from the distant rocket engine, kicking up immense clouds of dust, smoke and dirt. Four seconds later a Niagara of sound roars through the hundreds of spectators at a VIP viewing site. The flame lengthens and the clouds rise ever higher, their shadows stretching across the hillside behind the test site.
After two minutes and the expenditure of 3.6 million pounds of thrust, the test ends as water and carbon dioxide spray onto the engine, quenching the fire and sending out little plumes of darker smoke. Meanwhile, dissipating clouds seem to tower miles into the atmosphere.
“I’m pleased to report the test was very successful, extremely successful,” Charlie Precourt, vice president and general manager for ATK’s Space Launch Systems, said in a news conference following the test. Preliminary information on the timing of the thrust “looked essentially perfect,” he said.
“And we also had a number of sensors in the rocket motor that were first, one-of-a-kind, first-time ever used. They were ultrasonic sensors that were able to look into the nozzle. …
“At this point in time it’s a complete success for us and we’re very pleased at that.”
[Charlie Precourt, ATK vice president and general manager for Space Launch Systems, a former astronaut. Photo by Joe Bauman]
The test demonstrated some technological innovations, according to Precourt. With 3.6 million pounds of thrust, it is a delicate instrument to manage and “an awful lot of power to control.” It was the most heavily instrumented test of any ATK solid-rocket motor, with 37 objectives to check.
New materials for the nozzle and a reduction of the weight of insulation were among the changes. The insulation between the booster and the rocket case is designed to protect the system from the booster’s heat. By cutting out 1,500 pounds of insulation, more room is available for propellant and the rocket has to lug less material that doesn’t produce thrust.
“Hats off to the team” of ATK, NASA and subcontractors, Precourt added.
“The early data looks great,” said Fred Brasfield, ATK vice president for the next generation booster.
Asked by Nightly News if the test might send a message to Washington about the possibility of using these motors in future space programs, Precourt said, “I think industry and NASA aerospace partners … are very poised and ready to move into the next generation of space vehicles.
“And certainly this is an aid in showing that readiness …. Any test that comes out this positively is always good news.” It represents capacity that can be used in the future, he said.
“We’re very pleased that the results today were exactly what we were looking for.”
Shortly before the test Thursday, Precourt spoke of a possible announcement about the future of the next generation program. “We’re hearing it’s imminent — imminent meaning it’s days to weeks.”
The decision would be by “NASA and the White House. Congress has already expressed what it expects.” That expectation is the development of a new heavy-lift vehicle and crew capsule.
No other rocket can do what the ATK motor can, Precourt said.
So it remains possible that America will rise again to the challenge of human exploration of space.